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.