Beijingers savour blue skies — till the paralympics are over

04 September 2008
Comments Off

Man swimming in Beijing\'s Houhai lake

Man swimming in Beijing's Houhai lake

Beijingers are falling back in love with their city. The shimmering beauty of Olympic venues and the excitement of the games were all overwhelming but in the two weeks since athletes and visitors left the capital, people here have begun reclaiming their place. They are also discovering something they had stopped remembering about – Beijing’s once famous autumn skies.

The crisp and crystal clear feel of autumn in Beijing has for years been overshadowed by the capital’s notorious smog. But the Olympic clean up drive and traffic restrictions that saw half of the cars off the roads for two months have brought back to people the memories of what their city was once serenaded for.

For weeks now Beijingers have woken up to the sight of infinite blue skies. And they have shuddered at the thought that things would go back to “normal” – the grey haze enveloping the city, once the Paralympic games guests have left too.

The allure of Beijing blue skies has been such that even acerbic environmental critics like Wang Youngchen – a prominent radio host, have been prompted to wax Olympic Beijing’s lyrics. “I cannot remember the last time that I was able to describe Beijing skies as azure,” she wrote in a column published in the Beijing News. Then she went on describing the newly found joys of strolling along Beijing’s cleaned up rivers and admiring their “green wavelets”.

Swimmers have re-appeared in the capital’s former imperial lakes. And new anticipation – the sheer joy of looking up at vast stretches of blue every day, has been added to life here.

The city fathers may have had to use top-down approach and enforce the traffic restrictions for the Olympics but a recent survey of Beijing residents found that 68 percent supported the measures becoming permanent.

And now for the paralympics

02 September 2008
Comments Off

Deaf dancers perform the \'Thousand Arms of Guan Yin\'

Deaf dancers perform the 'Thousand Arms of Guan Yin'

Zhang Jigang is a man with a mission. A former army officer, Zhang is now one of the hottest Chinese artistic directors, staging lavish large-scale spectacles that draw upon traditional Chinese themes and heritage. He is also one of the choreographers in charge of the upcoming opening ceremony for the Paralympic games that begin in Beijing on Sep. 6. But what makes him different from his peers is the make up of his artistic troupe — it includes 21 deaf dancers.

As Beijing is now in full swing to welcome paralympic athletes and guests, the focus here has shifted from the Olympic motto of “faster, higher and stronger” to topics of compassion and stamina. Zhang, in particular, is keen on promoting the spirit of Guan Yin — China’s goddess of mercy.

Asked why Chinese society (atheistic by definition) needs an infusion of Guan Yin’s compassion, he smiles and disarms with the lack of defensive attitude:

“I may be an atheist myself but who can reject such goodness and kindness as embodied by the Bodhisattva of mercy?”

Zhang famously made his name abroad with a show featuring his troupe of deaf dancers in a stunning interpretation of the goddess, titled “Thousand hands Guan Yin”. In the performance, the dancers weave a long line that moves in synchronised motions to create the illusion of a single body with many arms.

While the visual effect is striking, the most stunning impression is made by the message of infinite possibility that its deaf dancers champion. Throughout the show they are guided by hand gestures and the synchrony between music and movements is mesmerising. We are told to expect even more from the opening show of the paralympic games, Saturday.

Gold Haul Vindicates State Control Over Sports

29 August 2008
Comments Off

Chinese people cheer their athletes at the Beijing Olympics

Chinese people cheer their athletes at the Beijing Olympics

China may have abandoned central planning of the economy in favour of market mechanisms but its sports machine is firmly under state control and, going by statements that have come from Beijing since the end of the Olympics, likely to remain so.

China won an astonishing number of gold medals, 51, surpassing the United States’ gold haul of 36 and surprising even its own public. Chinese commentators have been elated by the victories. Some have described the country’s show of sporting dominance as a metaphor for its larger global ambitions.

Yet a fair number have called too for a change in the state-sponsored sport system that relies on weeding out talented children and training elite athletes at the expense of wider participation in sports. “China’s performance in collective sports like football and volleyball that represent the overall strength of national fitness and sports participation, has been appalling,” bemoaned commentator Zhong Fuchun in the Beijing News.

But the sports powers of the day have defended the status quo of the centralised sports system as the only viable way for China to make its mark. “In China there are so many sports that are not mature enough yet to face the market, Wei Jizhong, member of the Olympic organising committee told the media. “Government funding is still very important in promoting them”.

Others have gone even further to warn the Chinese sports administration not to mull any radical market reforms. Pointing at Russia’s alleged “lackluster Olympic performance” (the country ranked third in the number of gold medals), some Chinese officials have pinned it down to the demise of its Soviet centralised sports system and Moscow’s “premature adoption” of market approaches to the training of athletes. “China mustn’t follow that path,” sports official Feng Yi told the China Business Journal.

Olympics helped narrow gap in Chinese self-perceptions

28 August 2008
1 comment

The tourists are gone and the rickshaws idle.

The tourists are gone and the rickshaws idle.

The athletes are gone. The tourist crowds have dwindled. The rickshaws are idle. But the excitement generated by the Beijing games will stay for a little longer with people here. Ask them what they feel about the way China performed as an Olympic host and many would say: pride.

“We knew from very young that China is that ancient country with great culture but somehow never got it confirmed by the outside world. Then we saw those protests when our torch toured the world and got even more suspicious. But now it is plain clear – the world respects us and we can feel more confident about it,” Grace Huang, who works in a foreign bank in Beijing, tells me.

Claire Chen — a second generation Chinese American now working in Beijing — had another revealing experience. “My son, who goes to the International School here and has to study Chinese as a second language with the other foreign children, has been bowled over by the Olympics and Chinese athletes. He all of a sudden told me the other day: ‘Isn’t it great that I’m Chinese too?’”

The Olympics was always supposed to be about creating bonds and narrowing gaps in perceptions. Perhaps with the Beijing games the biggest gap bridged has been the one between the way Chinese people felt about themselves and the way the outside world perceived them.

“We are always torn between out feeling of superiority as an ancient nation and our most recent experiences of inferiority,” says Cheng Wenxi, a media worker. “One can’t say that this fight of opposites has been put to rest with the Olympics but at least we feel more confident now to face our weaknesses.”

Hu is politicising the Olympics?

27 August 2008
Comments Off

China has repeatedly asked the outside world not to politicise the Beijing Olympic games. President Hu Jintao issued a personal plea ,on the eve of the games’ opening, for sports and politics to be kept separate. But Beijing has been quick to find ways to convert its Olympic sporting victories into political capital.

For a start, it announced that it will send most of the country’s Olympic gold medalists to Hong Kong at the end of this week. The hope is that a surge in nationalist pride stoked by the sporting achievements of Chinese athletes could swing the outcome of the legislative elections in the city on Sep. 7.

Pro-democracy politicians are struggling to hold onto their current 26 seats in the 60-member legislature. Their opponents- in the pro-Beijing camp – are vying to reshape the territory’s election laws and other legislation so as to further cement Beijing’s control. After 156 years under British rule, Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997 but enjoys autonomy under the “one country, two systems” set up agreed to between Britain and China for a 50-year the duration.

Hong Kong has not been immune to the nationalist euphoria sweeping China in the wake of its stunning victory at the Olympics. The athletes are scheduled to give sports demonstrations in diving, table tennis and badminton — sports where China had a nearly clean sweep of gold medals. The locations selected for the demonstrations also pinpoint places where the electoral battle between democrats and Beijing allies is expected to be intense.

This is not the first time that Beijing has tried to use iconic national figures to influence political mood in the former colony. In 2004 it dispatched the country’s first astronaut Yang Liwei on a good will visit to Hong Kong — just a week after his return from China’s pioneer flight into space. The visit was meant to better public perceptions of China after Hong Kong’s people power derailed the planned (and supported by Beijing) introduction of stringent internal security legislation.

Cool Britannia Rules

26 August 2008
Comments Off

If London — host to the Games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 — wanted to present a contrasting image to China’s highly regimented and massive Olympic show, the message it sent during the closing ceremony was lost on the average Chinese spectator here.

In an eight-minute handover slot reserved for them in the middle of the lavish Beijing extravaganza, London games organisers challenged Chinese perceptions of English pomp, conservatism and demeanor by rolling out a hip performance better suited to showcase Tony Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’.

The slot packed an aging rocker from Led Zeppelin, a street performing troupe called Zoo Nation, pop star Leona Lewis and David Beckham -– all centered on top (or around) London’s iconic red double-decker bus. As Jimmy Page played and Leona Lewis sang, the performers finally paid tribute to conventional perceptions by unfolding umbrellas to act out the notorious London downpours.

But for people on the street here — expecting a procession of bowler hats and a float parade of London landmarks like the Big Ben -– the show lacked recognisable emblems and fell flat compared to China’s lavish and flawless pageantry.

“I kept waiting for something to happen but then it was the end and I couldn’t understand the point of it,” said Zhou Xuan who owns a flower business. “All I could grasp was the presence of David Beckham there. Oh, and the umbrellas too! But where was the fog?” (Chinese people often refer to London as the Fog Capital).

Daisy Chan, a nurse, liked the duet but thought the show lacked a main theme. “There was nothing there to be remembered for,” she commented. “Neither the colours nor the costumes were great. I hope they do better at the opening ceremony.”

More Panda Kung Fu

23 August 2008
Comments Off

Martial arts display at the Beijing Olympics

Martial arts display at the Beijing Olympics

Ever since the Hollywood blockbuster cartoon “Kung Fu Panda” smashed box office records here, Chinese kung fu fans have been smarting over the perceived intrusion by western filmmakers into the realm of one of the most sacred Chinese cultural traditions. Not only did the cartoon hijack one of China’s most beloved symbols, the panda, but it also seemed to grasp intuitively what should be out of bounds for those uninitiated into the secrets of China’s martial arts.

“How could foreign artists find a media to express the essence of kung fu philosophy so well while we, the Chinese, have repeatedly failed to do so,” the line of thinking went through a number of published opinions and blogs. The sense of failure was palpable.

The opening ceremony of the games provided a sense of redemption for the devotees of the kung fu tradition. In a stunning number where 2008 performers displayed “tai chi”, which gradually evolved into boxing, the director managed masterly to strike at the heart of kung fu teachings that the “soft and the palpable will defeat the hard and strong”.

Tai chi expert Huang Zhongda appraised the number as one that conveyed the same message as “Kung Fu Panda”: “The panda could knock down the powerful wolf by a slight touch,’’ he said. It all derived from the martial art’s ancient tradition of striking a balance between internal and external strength.

Now, kung fu backers are getting another reason to cheer. While the millennia-old art failed to get the stamp of approval as an official Olympic sport in Beijing it held an unofficial international competition on the sidelines of the games this week. More flips and kicks by students of the Chinese martial arts are predicted for the hotly anticipated closing ceremony of the games on Aug. 24.

Business biggies add to the Beijing basket

21 August 2008
Comments Off

Bill Gates? Check. Rupert Murdoch? Check. General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner? Check. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Lee Scott? Check.

With more than 1,000 CEOs of multinational companies descending on Beijing for the Olympics, the Chinese capital is now being referred to as the “Olympic Davos”. But the Chinese press has made it a point to contrast “leisurely itineraries” at the Swiss Alpine resort with the busier schedules at Beijing, packed as they are with brand promotional activities, company conferences and meetings with Chinese politicians.

“The simultaneous presence of so many CEOs in Beijing speaks volumes about their appreciation of the importance of China’s market,” quipped the China Business Journal. It described the Chinese banquet thrown for the CEOs by Olympic sponsor China Mobile as a “huge PR activity” for the host country.

Whether gripped by Olympic fever or market aspirations, the honchos have been competing with each other in finding novel ways to express their interest in the competitions (and regard for the Chinese market). Carrefour’s CEO Jose-Luis Duran has headed to Qingdao to watch the sailing competitions. Bill Gates (who has retired as head of Microsoft but remains big in China in terms of investment and charity plans) is putting in an appearance at the equestrian events in Hong Kong.

McDonalds CEO Jim Skinner found time for a quick burger at the company’s flagship store on the Wangfujing commercial street. Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing was there too, showing appreciation for Chinese silk. The overnight rebirth of the capital’s humdrum streets into celebrity walkways parallels China’s great gold medal haul at the competitions.

World Expo on the side

19 August 2008
Comments Off

Visitors throng to see Swiss toys

Visitors throng to see Swiss toys

Beijing’s stunning Olympic venues have been a hit with first-time foreign visitors. Capital residents who had lived through much of the Olympic hype for the past seven years are now discovering different pleasurable sides to the games. Along with hosting the world’s premier athletes this month, Beijing is also hosting a score of national houses, showcasing delicacies, luxury products and marketable goods from many countries.

Shichahai lake area in the old city, for example — a bustling place of tourists and rickshaws at any season of the year– is now the temporary home to the House of Russia and the London house.

“It is like a little world expo,” says Wang Tingliang excitedly. Sipping cranberry juice and eating petit fours in the spacious courtyard of the London house, Wang describes his busy schedule that day. After a morning visit to the Russia house, he is now taking a break before looking at the exhibits for the 2012 London Olympics.

“I have collected wonderful materials and photos of those countries,” he says, holding a bag stuffed with prospects and Olympic memorabilia. “My next stop is the Swiss House,” Wang tells me. “I hear their house is one of the biggest and most interesting”.

Tight visa policies and empty stadia

19 August 2008

Brisk ticket trading in front of the Bird's Nest stadium

Brisk ticket trading in front of the Bird\'s Nest stadium

Beijing is living up to its past reputation of being a walled city. The hardest part of the Olympic experience so far has been getting in. And unsurprisingly Olympic tickets have become Beijing’s hottest commodity these days. Beauty parlours and Internet fora are bustling in equal degree with Olympic ticket trading. Subway stations near the Olympic venues and famous sightseeing spots all sport a fair number of ticket scalpers seeking to make a hit.

“We thought the hardest part would be getting our visas,” says Australian Catherine Mathewson, “but once we had them we realised the real problem was finding tickets”. No tickets were available back home and since their arrival in Beijing, Mathewson and her husband have been touring the spots pinpointed by friends in search of tickets for the athletics. But the prices — 3,000 yuan (US dollar 440) a piece — were out of their reach.

With all the demand on display virtually everywhere in the city it has been a surprise to see the empty rows at some events. For organisers who had claimed that all 6.8 million tickets to the Beijing games had sold out, the scenes have been an embarrassment. Wang Wei, vice president of Beijing Organising Committee, sounded apologetic when he stated the obvious.

“We are concerned about the fact we do not have full stadia,” he told reporters last week and blamed the combination of heat, humidity and torrential rain in the first days for the no show. But he admitted too that a big portion of reserved seats for the IOC family members and corporate sponsors have remained unfilled.

Security restrictions imposed by the Chinese governmental after the pro-Tibetan riots in March have had a role in spoiling the Olympic party too. Swedish family Gustavsson had bought their Olympic tickets well ahead of time but then they were refused entry into the country. “We were supposed to lodge them,” says Swedish expat Karen,” but they couldn’t get their visas”.

Even the United Nations’ representative to the Beijing games has raised his voice in diplomatic reproach to the ticket sales arrangements. The half-filled halls are “very disappointing” for everybody, Wilfred Lemke, special adviser to the UN secretary general on sport for development and peace, said. “When people all over the world see that there are no people in the hall, they might think China is not interested in the games, but that is a completely wrong point of view.”