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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Beijing's cool youngsters enjoy a breath of fresh Olympic air

August 24, 2008

China may not have intended that the Games would speed up the pace of
social change. But that's what is happening
Simon Barnes
The Times (UK)
August 21, 2008

Beijing is a cool city. Never mind the old buildings, pollution,
traffic jams and random development: it's the people that are cool.
The dazzling urbanites, the young professionals, the ambitious and
the relatively affluent, these are the people who set the tone.

Some are foreign-educated, have foreign friends, know about the West
and think that it's high time we wised up about China. What's more,
they think that this process of mutual learning is happening, and
that the Olympics are an inevitable part of it. Never mind the
national propaganda, it's the educational quality of the Games that matters.

Take a walk downtown. It's full of sharp-suited yuppies, smart young
businesswomen, young girls in cut-off jeans and crop tops. And it
doesn't even come as a surprise.

"The first question I was asked when I went to America was, 'Is it
true you eat cats in China?': one said. "The second was, is it true
you find dead babies all over the beaches, because of the one-child policy?'"

The Games have forced the West to take a slightly less fanciful view
of China. The young Chinese see them as a great thing for precisely
this reason - the Olympics have forced us to see the real China.

Beijingers were overjoyed when their city was awarded the Games. But
they have been through seven years of irritation and disruption since
then. Living in Beijing became difficult; like every authoritarian
organisation, the Chinese Government has no problem with messing
people about. There was a certain amount of disgruntlement.

But many Beijingers had a change of heart when the opening ceremony
unwound. There was a sudden sense of being part of history, part of a
continuum, from the lit-up scroll and the romantic depictions of
China past, to the modern country that produced such a stadium, and
was about to stage so colossal an event.

For the first time in 3,000 years of recorded history, Beijing was
the centre of the Universe: and all eyes on Earth looked towards it.

There was sudden sense of the power of the Games. And more than
anything, it is a power for change. Don't think that these urbanites
are innocents or government dupes.

There are internet controls in China, but these people dance rings
around them. You can't Google Tibet, Darfur, Falun Gong or Amnesty in
the normal course of things, but there are other ways for the smart
and computer-literate. They download files in text via sites designed
for places with low bandwidth. The thing about controlling the
internet is that you can't. It is too vast, and for young people
brought up on computers, dodging restrictions is, almost literally,
child's play. These people are clued up.

But Beijingers have changed as a result of the Games. For educated
Beijingers, the changes are something of a relief. I lived in Hong
Kong for four years, and lived them all to the background music of
hawking and spitting. I have heard just two gobbers in three weeks.
Something has changed.

It began as a television campaign, but it has worked because in
Beijing they genuinely want foreigners to be impressed. Chinese men
have ceased to strip to the waist at the least hint of discomfort, to
the great relief of many in crowded restaurants. The initial
suggestion came from the Government, but people took it on because
they couldn't bear the idea of all these foreigners thinking China
was a backward and stinking place.

Beijingers want us to like them. That is the most obvious thing about
being here for the Games. This impression comes most obviously from
the hordes of volunteers, most of them students. They are all still
working hard and still smiling incessantly, even though the novelty
has worn off. Again, they are doing this not because they have been
told to, but because they want to.

There is a changing relationship between foreigners and Chinese.
Foreigners once had a scarcity value in Beijing. There was a tendency
to subservience from the Chinese, and an equal and opposite tendency
of foreigners to take advantage. Cool Beijingers see that as a thing
of the past. Beijing is full of foreigners, and nobody turns a head
at tall, white, bearded, scruffy strangers.

More importantly, for the Chinese at least, the notion of awe and
discomfort has gone. This has been happening over the years, but is
something that the Games have emphatically reinforced. Beijing is
becoming more cosmopolitan by the day and Beijingers are increasingly
comfortable with that.

The Government set the great changes going when it opened China up to
foreign investment in the late 1970s. It's a bit like weightlifting.
In competition, you can only increase the weight on the bar. There is
no going back. The process inevitably goes beyond control. With
foreign money come foreign ideas, attitudes, different orthodoxies.

"We know bigger changes will come, that democracy will come. But we
are patient."

Patient unless the Government makes a mess of the economy. The boom
can only keep booming if the momentum of change is maintained. True,
these aren't thoughts that you put up posters about or set your name
to, but many share them.

I suggested that the attitude of young educated people in Beijing to
their Government was like young people still living with their
parents, viewing them with a weary tolerance so long as they are
allowed a great deal of their own way.

"That's it. Just like that."

The Olympic Games are both a symptom and a way of accelerating the
pace of change. That may not be what the Government had in mind when
Beijing bid for the Games, but that, young Beijingers believe, is
emphatically what they've got.
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