Beyond Beijing: China’s Toughest Competition

Beyond Beijing: China’s Toughest Competition

Beyond Beijing: China’s Toughest Competition

How will the Olympics play in the Chinese equivalent of Peoria, among a populace skeptical of the government’s intent and eager to tout their own economic clout?


Reuters Pictures A Beijing resident watches the spectacle from afar.

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.

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