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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Beyond Beijing, China's Toughest Competition

August 11, 2008

Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Kate Merkel-Hess
The Nation
August 10, 2008

Beijing, Beijing: never has this city made so many headlines. Never
have so many reviews of books about it, photos of its landmarks, and
tips on where to eat and what to see if you go there shown up in
English-language publications. If the Olympic Games accomplish
nothing else, they will at least ensure that news broadcasters around
the world can all find Beijing on a map and pronounce its name
correctly, so that references to the anachronistic "Peking" will be
consigned to puns in book titles and references to culinary delights,
such as the city's storied duck dish.

This explosion of Beijing commentary is natural. And we've done our
small part to contribute to it, via our individual writings for The
China Beat blog and other venues, where we've talked up new books
with titles like Beijing Time and The Last Days of Old Beijing.
Still, as central as Beijing is to the tale of the games, it is a
mistake to focus too intently on this one Chinese metropolis. Most of
the main news stories relating to the games--from how China got the
nod to host, to the event's political and economic dimensions--are
better appreciated when viewed through a multi-city or national lens
than solely through the prism of Beijing.

The most important reason to look beyond Beijing is simple: the
Chinese regime realized from the start that domestically, the games
cannot achieve what it wants them to achieve if they are seen as a
just the capital's affair. It has thus taken many steps to encourage
people living far from Beijing--who often view the capital and its
residents with suspicion--to feel that they, too, have a stake in and
can benefit from the Olympics. Consider the torch relay.
International audiences tended to lose interest in it after the flame
reached China, perking up again only when it made it to Tibet and
then this week the capital, but its passage through Hainan Island and
cities such as Fujian and provinces such as Anhui--none of which is
near Beijing or Lhasa--were crucial for a government that is
constantly trying to convince a population with no faith in its
official ideology to give it credit for providing attractive bread
and circuses at home and for raising China's profile abroad.

Since most foreign journalists are based in Beijing,
people-in-the-street interviews conducted there will be used to
assess the domestic success of the games (or lack thereof). But for
the Communist Party, what counts just as much as reactions by
Beijingers is how the spectacle plays in places like Wuxi and
Wenzhou, which we might be tempted to call Peorias with Chinese
characteristics, except that the population of the former is almost
ten times and the latter almost twenty times that of the Illinois city.

Here are some specific stories that benefit from looking beyond Beijing.

Why China Got the games

When IOC members vote on host cities, they typically weigh the merits
of a specific metropolis and a specific country. If nations have
hosted the games before, the suitability of a particular city may be
particularly important. With first-time hosts like China, though, the
vote is more of referendum on the country. And while the
decision-making of individual IOC voters is shrouded in secrecy,
there are good reasons to assume that in 2001, they were influenced
by developments in multiple Chinese cities. For example, when Chinese
officials claimed they could quickly transform their then
dowdy-looking capital, improving its transportation infrastructure
and working with international architecture firms to create stunning
new buildings, this notion was given added credence by the
spectacular way Pudong (East Shanghai) had evolved from a backwater
to a glittering showplace during the 1990s. And when these same
officials promised that they could deliver increased press freedom,
the degree of media openness in Hong Kong in the immediate aftermath
of the 1997 handover gave a degree of plausibility to this notion.

The Athletic Contests

Events will be taking place in multiple cities. Beijing will get the
most action, but competitions will take place elsewhere: yachting in
Qingdao, soccer matches in Shanghai, Tianjin, Qinhuangdao, and
Shenyang, and equestrian events in Hong Kong. Lest anyone think that
these events will still be basically "local" to Beijing (analogous to
some contests at the Atlanta Games being farmed out to other parts of
Georgia), note that while Tianjin is a neighbor of the capital and
Qinhuangdao is only about 180 miles from it, Shenyang is more than
400 miles to the north, and Hong Kong more than three times that far
to the south (further from Beijing than Atlanta is from Manhattan).


Beijing has gone all out architecturally for the Olympics, with the
construction of the Bird's Nest (National Stadium), the Water Cube
(National Aquatics Center) and a fancy new airport terminal. But this
monumental urge neither started in Beijing (Shanghai got its urban
makeover and a state-of-the-art new airport first), nor is now
limited to the capital. Some of the construction money earmarked for
the games is being spread around, as lavish new arenas have been
built in secondary host cities like Tianjin. And Shanghai's built
environment continues to be transformed, often through the sort of
splashy joint ventures of foreign and Chinese architects that are
getting so much attention just now in Beijing. Not long after the
Bird's Nest was completed, for example, the World Financial Center in
Pudong became the tallest skyscraper on earth.

Spectacle and Symbolism

Much has been made of how the symbolic layout of the capital has been
altered by the games, and global television broadcasts of the lead-up
have continually used spectacular shots of sites that are in or near
Beijing, from Tiananmen Square to the Great Wall, to stand for China.
Within China itself, though, efforts have been made to use more
geographically diffuse symbols and spectacles to represent the
nation. Consider, for instance, the mascots for the games, the cuddly
fuwa or "Five Friendlies" that have been marketed heavily in China
for the past few years. Created to be broadly representative of
varied regions and ethnic groups within the nearly continent-size
land mass that is the Peoples Republic of China, the bobble-headed
imps are featured on all kinds of Olympic paraphernalia (available at
Olympic stands erected on city street corners and in empty
storefronts across China). They are often shown participating in
Olympic events, from diving to badminton to wrestling (our personal
favorites include the image of pudgy panda Jingjing, handgun cocked,
participating in the pistol-shooting events).

Jingjing is an emblem for Sichuan, the antelope Yingying represents
the Tibetan and Xinjiang minorities, and so on. To turn the fuwa's
diversity into a message of saccharine greeting, while suggesting
that the country's people all come together in the capital (a theme
likely to be stressed in the Opening Ceremonies as well), the names
of the Friendlies spell out "Beijing Welcomes You." Often mocked on
the web and elsewhere, some have said that rather than being
representative of positive Chinese attributes the Friendlies have
been harbingers of 2008's bad luck, from Sichuan's earthquake to the
Tibetan unrest.

After the games

One likely assumption is that when it comes to future high-profile
international gatherings, the main Chinese city to benefit or be hurt
by how the games play out will be Beijing. This is partly true. There
is talk already of the city wanting to host the World Cup soon, and
this will likely only come to pass if the games go well.

Here again, though, there's a beyond-Beijing angle worth
appreciating. The capital has never been the only city in the mix:
Shanghai hosted a major summit in October 2001 that brought George W.
Bush, among many other leaders, to Pudong, for example; and Kunming
was supposed to host a world anthropology conference earlier this
year--but the conference was cancelled due partly to official worries
about something untoward happening that would affect the games. And
where high-profile events are concerned, Beijing will not even be the
main Chinese city to focus on during the two years following the end
of the games. Why? Because 2010 will be the year of the Shanghai World Expo.

World Expos are still a very big deal in Asia, and this event is
billed as the first World's Fair ever held in the developing world.
It is being touted as an "Economic Olympics" (one more strategy for
ensuring that Olympic fever isn't seen as a purely Beijing thing),
and estimated to have the potential of bringing 70 million tourists
to Shanghai. One reason residents of cities other than Beijing have a
stake in how the games go is that the Olympics will influence the
fate of their bids to host future events.

Efforts to use the games to knit the Chinese nation together appear
to have been successful, so far--certainly more successful than
efforts to use the events to improve Western views of the regime. The
recent leg of the torch run through earthquake-damaged Sichuan, the
torch's final jaunt before arriving in Beijing, was heralded
nationwide, its appearance combined with moments of silence in memory
of the earthquake's victims. And in the next week or so, we'll see
further uses of the games to promote national unity. The equestrian
events taking place in Hong Kong, for example, could help solidify
the former British colony's incorporation into the PRC.

But not all of these attempts to use this international spectacle to
further national ends have worked out as planned. For instance, when
the torch run's path was initially announced, it included a stop in
Taiwan--between legs in Vietnam and Hong Kong. The plans sparked
accusations from Taiwan that China was using the run to prove that
Taiwan was part of the PRC and, despite talks that continued through
the summer, the torch eventually bypassed Taiwan. Still, on the
whole, the domestic lead-up to the games, even in a year marked by
natural and social upheavals, has generally benefited China's leaders.

Foreign media have often focused on Beijing's negatives, from
bristling security to smoggy air to rampant, "Chinglish" signage to,
most importantly, the lack of improvements in areas such as human
rights and freedom of speech. But we should not underestimate the
capacity for stunning spectacle and effervescent hospitality in the
Northern Capital in the coming weeks to play well to domestic
audiences, who are less focused on human rights and dissent than are
international viewers, and will hear much less about any protests or
government missteps should these occur (though the increasingly
assertive Chinese blogosphere won't let these things pass without
some caustic comment, especially if official corruption, still the
hot-button issue in China, seems to be involved).

The grandeur of the arenas and the ceremonies--and China's medal
count--are what domestic journalists and broadcasts and their target
audiences focus on. And, if all goes smoothly in Beijing, that may
still be what international audiences remember most about the 2008
games. This won't necessarily be a good thing for human rights in
China: the court is still out as to the long-term impact the games
will have on that front, as a case can still be made that despite the
crackdowns and high security, there have been some important positive
developments under the radar relating to increased room for maneuver
by civil society actors due to the media glare. But if the games are
seen globally as well as locally as having been a success, this might
open doors for a growing international acquaintance with the local
characters of at least a few of the Chinese largest cities, as they
get the chance to host international spectacles of their own.

About Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of
California, Irvine. He is co-founder and regular contributer to The
China Beat: Blogging How the East is Red. His books include China's
Brave New World (2007) and the forthcoming Global Shanghai,
1850-2010. Kate Merkel-Hess is the editor of The China Beat: Blogging
How the East is Read, a graduate student in modern Chinese history at
the University of California, Irvine, and a contributor to the Times
Literary Supplement (London). ]
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