The Emperor-City’s New Clothes

As everyone is well aware, the Beijing Olympic Games are coming up this weekend, and so while everyone has to wait a few more days for the athletic spectaculars to begin, the focus of media attention is falling mainly on the host city that is setting the stage. Will the air be clean enough? (The jury is still out; we might not know until the actual dates when the particularly atmosphere-sensitive events – e.g. running, bicycling – are scheduled.) Will the authorities allow free access to information, mainly via the Internet, to enable visiting journalists to do their work? (That one is still touch-and-go as well.)

On-the-scene reports are now popping up in the media to give the outside world a sense of how the Chinese capital city has been improved and “cleaned up” in preparation for the Games, with the accent on the often extreme measures that the authorities have taken to do that. Jen Lin-Liu has a piece in today’s NYT (Beijing Under Wraps) touching on many of these below-the-surface measures, invisible to foreigners just now flying in to take part in some way in the Games’ staging. (Few foreigners, it turns out, will be flying in just to serve as spectators, if Lin-Liu’s description of the newly-stringent visa regulations is any indication.)

Jens Mühling and Benedikt Vogt managed to make their way there already, on journalist credentials from Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel, and have contributed their own survey of recent Beijing developments based on a month’s worth of notes. (The Emperor-City’s New Clothes. Clever title, eh? I just had to steal it.) And yes, the authorities are serious – mostly – about getting the city’s house(s) in order. Some selections:

– 2 July (the article is structured in diary fashion, and this is the first entry): The man on Jintai Street is gone! The guy in the dirty shirt who did bicycle repair, who ordinarily would be sitting there every day on his stool, waiting for customers at that ideal corner with a heavily-trafficked street to one side and a lamb’s-meat snack-bar, its grill wafting delicious smells over, on the other. But the guy does not fit into the image of the city the authorities want to give to visiting foreigners, so he’s gone – along with Beijing’s army of around 170,000 trash-scavengers who usually ride around on their three-wheeled cargo-bikes.

– 10 July: At a big construction site in the Houhai quarter, things have suddenly gone very quiet. Only one guy is still around, putting up protective hoardings, where yesterday a whole host of construction workers had been busy at work. Where did everyone go? the reporters ask the stay-behind. “They went home – not used anymore now.” And they’re not the only ones: about 10,000 constructions sites in the capital have been shut down for the duration of the Games.

– 15 July: A dozen curious Chinese, one foreign journalist, and – it turns out – two security officials in civilian clothes stand before a ramshackle house on Dianmen Avenue, that is covered with portraits of Communists past and present (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao, etc.) and sports to Chinese and one Olympic flag, as Yu Chang Wang explains his conflict with the local authorities, who want his family to move out. Yes, they might have been living there for sixty years now, but there needs to be a simple grass lawn there instead, for just before the start of the Games the famous Olympic torch is scheduled to be carried up Dianmen Avenue. Mr. Yu’s neighbors have already accepted the financial compensation the State has offered to clear out, but he has not: it comes to about the equivalent of €30,000, and it’s hardly enough, maybe about a tenth of what Mr. Yu thinks he should be getting. To concentrate his mind on the decision, the police recently have shut down the newsstand Mr. Yu was running out front, confiscating the refrigerator he had there to sell cold drinks to passers-by.

– 25 July: Back to Dianmen Avenue: Sure enough, neither Mr. Yu’s family nor his old house are anywhere to be seen, there’s just a nice field of grass there now instead. And the authors tell us about a “Center on Housing Rights and Evictions” advocacy group which maintains that up to 1,5 million people have been displaced this way in the run-up to the Games. Beijing city officials admit to 6,000 people.

– 29 July: The shopping quarter called Chaoyang. An older man walks along, coughs up something from inside and prepares to spit. Suddenly, he holds up, his faced registering shock at what he was about to do: he realizes that foreigners are present! Every night on the the TV news the message is drilled home again and again: No spitting! He finally finds a garbage can, leans far into it, and discharges.

Other diary entries speak of artists at street-side galleries being approached by representatives of the Chinese Olympic Committee and requested (instructed?) not to play up or discuss any political aspect to their works with foreigners, at least while the Games are on; of dark rumors that, if the air-quality doesn’t improve soon, that driving restrictions will shift from even-numbered license plates one day, odd-numbered the next (so 1/2 of the cars can drive) to restrictions where only cars whose last number matches the day’s date are allowed (so 1/10); but also of proud Chinese already flocking from far outside Beijing itself to view the grand modern installations (headliner: the “Birds-Nest” Stadium) that have been built for the occasion.

It’s a Potemkin city, it seems fair to say: but the natives are willing to play along.

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