Speaker by Various Artists


It’s Beijing, but not as Beijingers know it

by Emma August

A mere few hours till O-Day and from my living room window the odds that Beijing will be granted a coveted blue-sky day for the Olympic opening ceremony look far longer than the current range of visibility. Hand-wringing city officials will have to activate the top secret emergency plan: Pop up the city-sized blue tarpaulin.

They’ve had a couple of practice runs lately along with rehearsals for the opening ceremony fireworks display and it seems to have gone well. Everyone, including those pesky foreign reporters, was fooled by the azure skies and the accompanying temperature increase. Forget accusations of playing God with cloud-seeding tricks. Just hire all the many migrant workers who have been turfed out of Beijing to erect a fake blue sky. Easy.

Kite flyers and homing pigeon fanciers are the latest old school Beijingers to get the big “NO” from authorities, this time in the name of airspace security.

Perhaps the ban on aerial activities is a ploy to keep visitors’ eyes away from the sludgy skies. Down at street level, 40 million potted flowers arranged in fanciful formations across the city are eye-catching enough to distract even the most heat-exhausted visitor. The leafy mini-Great Wall near the Lama Temple and the herbaceous cyclists racing along Fuxingmen Street are understandable. But the huge flowery ship’s wheel on Changan Avenue, the main east-west thoroughfare, and the Dutch-style floral windmill near my apartment are hard to fathom. 40 million pot plants is a lot to work with. I guess they got desperate for ideas.

Many other Beijing residents are feeling a little desperate lately too. “Tai mafan le!” exclaimed the cab driver on the way to my friend’s house near the National Stadium, gesticulating out the window towards the Olympic Green. Too much trouble. I know what he means and I haven’t been forced to dress like a boy scout in a new uniform. First, cabbies were banned from smoking and sleeping in their cars, now they have to wear ties. What next? White Mickey Mouse gloves like they wear in Japan?

Heaven forbid Beijing becomes the next Tokyo. I spent a couple of years in Japan and it’s hard not to notice the unspoken rules and social constraints when I go back, especially after living in freewheeling China. Right from the airport arrivals hall where an annoyingly officious staff member points to the English word ‘name’ on the form and instructs me to write my name, I always have the feeling I am being monitored to make sure I do the right thing and strictly obey the rules.

In Beijing regulations are usually more like suggestions than orders. Or at least, they used to be. Lately it seems like there’s a new regulation issued every day and these ones are being enforced. Some are about security – vehicle checkpoints set up all round the city’s entry points, random ID checks on the street and bag inspections at subway stations; others are about clean air – half the cars ordered off the roads, polluting factories shut and construction suspended; while others are about image – don’t ask foreigners anything personal and for heaven’s sake don’t go to the store in your pyjamas this month.

The concept behind the Beijing Games is “The Green Olympics, the People's Olympics and the Hi-tech Olympics.” Covering the capital with thirsty floral extravaganzas while surrounding provinces gasp for water does make for a green host city. Maybe the people do prefer it when they can no longer make a living from selling fruit, goldfish, flowers, books and iced drinks off their tricycles along the streets. And perhaps Beijing does look more high-tech with all the huge screens on buildings that are popping up everywhere. But personally I liked it better when there weren’t armband wearing Olympic volunteers positioned every few metres along the streets keeping an eye out for anything unusual and I was allowed to sit on sidewalk tables at my favourite restaurants.

Still, it could be worse. Spare a thought for the families of over a thousand shop owners in Olympic co-host city Shanghai who have just had their businesses closed down for a month. The China Daily reports they will not receive any compensation but most business owners “understand.” I doubt that’s what they said when they went home after getting the order to shut up shop.

Many of the things that are most endearing about China’s scruffy, characterful capital city have been tidied out of sight to ensure a ‘perfect’ Olympics. Although I can (in some cases) understand why, it seems a shame that the country is not yet confident enough to relax and be itself in front of strangers.

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