Inside Beijing's Faux-lympics

By Hae Ryun Kang

This summer I was lucky enough to stay in Beijing during the Olympics. There were banners everywhere. The Adidas ad of the 1.3 billion Chinese holding up the Chinese athletes with their bare hands was played in city squares over and over. People came from all over the world, taking pictures and fanning themselves with the ubiquitous fifty cent Chinese fans. Especially coming from Korea, China’s next-door neighbor for thousands of years, I was asked by many Chinese if I’d seen the incredible opening ceremony, and if I’d seen the “reality” of Chinese grandness. All of it was, in a word, exciting.But living in the real Beijing was a bit different-or a bit less one-dimensionally picturesque-from the reality portrayed on TV (of course). Hopefully as Macalester students, we would not have been blindly impressed by the show of it all, but more awake.

As an event like the Olympics always is, it was a political opportunity for China to reassert itself as the “Middle Kingdom.” There were little things-for example, Chinese Taipei (my Taiwanese friends would hit the ceiling) entering right after Hong Kong in the opening ceremony, thus naturally grouped together as Chinese territories. Or the government-regulated China Central Television network, which in its daily Olympics compilations rarely showed Korean, Japanese, and American athletes unless they were losing to Chinese athletes.

In the big scheme, what China wanted was perfection: the perfect little girl singing and the perfect harmony of minority groups dancing at the opening ceremony (not one of the 56 children dancing were minorities; all Han), the perfect city, the perfect blend of past and present – consequently, political calculations had to be prioritized over the true objectives of the Olympics, transcending the simple (comparatively, at least) matter of ‘international cooperation through sports’ into a matter of life or death. Call me young and na’ve, but even knowing that politics always cheapens such international events, it still makes me angry.

Months before the Olympics, Beijing was overhauled, turned into a model city. Guards and fences stood in corners to regulate traffic rules (normally ignored by people, cars, and bicycles alike). More than 5,000 beggars were deported to rural areas. Some ghettos were covered with mounds of cloth. Artificial rain was showered by the government to cool the city. Factories were shut down to temporarily ease the air pollution. Unfortunately, these people who had had their livelihoods shut down for months, will now have to deal with rising prices after the Olympics.

Even though it is natural for host cities to undergo reconstruction, I could not help feeling that a lot of this was last minute cramming, the unestablishd quicksand sort of studying that only lasts a few minutes after the exams.

Most importantly, the “civilized” China they wished to show was not China. My problem with the Chinese Olympics was not something so big as human rights or Tibet or environmental degradation. It was just the simple act of lying. Lying about the games and demeaning athletes’ efforts with political calculations, lying to its own people (who, as my Chinese friends had tried to convince me, believed that “everything was perfect, and nobody was hurt”), lying about the imperfections of its own reality.

It is good and well to strive to be perfect. But to pretend to already be it, while the real people, with all their sweat and dirt (and spit on the sidewalks) are still here, breathing a bit more heavily because their lives have been stifled and cheapened by the government’s deceit – it was a bit too much to take.

At Tiananmen Square, Tiananmen (entrance to Forbidden Palace) stands. The side perpetually facing the outside world is perfectly coated and grandly designed, with Mao’s benign face pasted on. Inside, it is more a different and complicated story. The walls are older, wearing off in paint, a bit dirty, a bit more real.

Contact Hae Ryun Kang ’11 at [email protected]