Medals And Rights: What the Olympics reveal, and conceal, about China.

Andrew Nathan – The New Republic

Copyright The New Republic
Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City
By Lillian M. Li, Alison J. Dray-Novey, and Haili Kong (Palgrave Macmillan, 321 pp., $27.95)
Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China
By Susan Brownell (Rowman & Littlefield, 213 pp., $24.95)
Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008
By Xu Guoqi (Harvard University Press, 359 pp., $29.95)
China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges
Edited by Minky Worden (Seven Stories Press, 331 pp., $18.95)
Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China
By Anne-Marie Brady (Rowman & Littlefield, 231 pp., $75)
Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China
Edited by Monroe E. Price and Daniel Dayan (University of Michigan Press, 416 pp., 26.95)
I.
The two million foreign guests who are expected to visit Beijing in August will encounter a largely familiar and exceedingly cosmopolitan environment. They will find clean air, smooth traffic, easy Internet access, and standardized restaurant menus, all intended to provide them with seventeen days of physical, mental, and moral ease. Beijing has trained 1,500 “civilized bus riding supervisors,” appointed 5,000 anti-jaywalking monitors, held “queuing awareness days,” and mounted campaigns against spitting and slurping. The planners have paved over old neighborhoods to make way for five-star hotels, malls, and theme restaurants. Migrant workers who built the Olympic venues will have been dispatched back to the countryside, beggars and petitioners shipped home to their villages, and dissidents and would-be demonstrators placed under temporary house arrest or jailed. Visitors will see an edited Beijing, the way its governors and many of its residents would like it to be seen, a world capital with its exotic side under control.
And yet these same visitors may detect a deep ambivalence in the city’s welcome. The pride may seem leavened with insecurity, the greeting tinged with rejection, the celebration not quite drowning out the whispers of doubt. China has arrived at the modernity it has been seeking for over a century, but it is not quite the modernity that we–and many Chinese–have been expecting.
Visitors may be struck first by Beijing’s monumentalism. Old Beijing’s charm lay in the narrow alleyways known as hutongs, courtyard houses, streetside handicrafts, and slow savors of life–all built, to be sure, on a system of class and gender exploitation that could not survive. Mao Zedong’s new government after 1949 tore down the city walls and built Tiananmen Square as a vast public space to celebrate communist rule. But thanks more to economic stagnation than to city planning, much of the old city was preserved. The first stage of urban revolution happened indoors and underground. Multiple families were crammed into old houses, street trades were eliminated, and tunnels were dug for civil defense. The peddlers and handicraftsmen disappeared, and street life turned drab. But the alleyways and the low buildings of the capital remained largely untouched, at least physically.
Deng Xiaoping’s commercial revolution after 1979 created crowds, bustle, supermarkets, fast food outlets, high rises, bland sprawling residential districts, and wide congested roads. Several international athletic events, such as the Asian Games in 1990, contributed new construction. And this year’s Olympics has finally completed the destruction of the historical city, with a huge new airport terminal, thirty-one competition venues, new roads, subway lines, hotels, bridges, neighborhoods, and parks. What remains of the old-style houses and streets, crafts, means of transportation, and ways of life is mere outdoor museum displays, according to Lillian M. Li and her co-authors in their narrative of the city’s lost past. Visitors should carry this readable book with them as an aid to imagining what is no longer there, and to understanding the political sources–including hubris and corruption–of what they see.
The main Olympic site north of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square sits at the top of the city’s cosmologically significant north-south axis, explains Susan Brownell in her book on the anthropology of Chinese sports. It thus expresses the unity of sports and politics that the Chinese authorities and the International Olympic Committee have been at such pains to deny. Brownell says that planners at one point wanted the main stadium, referred to as the “Bird’s Nest” because of its lattice-like construction, which was contrived to accommodate 11,000 VIPs so that the whole hierarchy of power could display itself before the people on this most auspicious occasion. The stillsecret opening and closing ceremonies that have been designed for the arena will be global and glitzy, but they need to convey the same power, dignity, and order as did the old PRC aesthetic of massed gray suits, red ties, and primary-color potted flowers. After all, Hu Jintao’s chief contribution to Chinese political thought in his six years in power has been the concept of the “harmonious society.”
The Olympic buildings are diverse, and some of them are innovative. Yet in both the process of their construction and, I expect, in their use, they embody the dominance of the state. The public scale overwhelms the private scale, national power trumps personal comfort, and society’s interests supersede individual rights. China’s systems of land ownership, construction approvals, contracting, and labor discipline allowed quick and efficient displacement of residents (often through police and court collusion with developers, and the threat and use of violence), along with quick decisions on design, quick letting of contracts, and quick completion of projects. The buildings together announce that this is a society able and willing to consummate the Hegelian overcoming of its own past.
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