David Tang reflects on his visits to Beijing in the run-up to the Games, where Western expertise has been harnessed to the ruthless efficiency of China’s government machine
Albert Speer was commissioned by the Chinese government to lay out a masterplan for the access to the Olympic Green in Beijing. His design consisted of one impressive avenue connecting the Forbidden City and the National Stadium in which the opening ceremony will take place. Speer is indeed the son of the infamous Albert, chief architect to Hitler and his minister of armaments. Speer Senior had also laid out his signature axis within Hitler’s megalomaniac city ‘Welthaupstadt Germania’ which, thankfully, was never realised. So what the father failed to do in Berlin, his son managed to achieve in Beijing, about 60 years later.
It has also taken about 60 years for a commercial flight to fly directly from the mainland to Taiwan. The historic landing on 4 July signalled a seminal thaw between the two Chinas. Such friendly news could only be a bonus for the political stature of mainland China. It, together with the show of some highly efficient relief work on the Sichuan earthquake, was a timely dilution of the uglier internal conflict with Tibet, an irritating thorn in China’s anxious promotions of the Olympics. Indeed, the success of these Games has become an obsession for China from the moment she secured them seven years ago.
Not only was the German Albert Speer recruited, the Australians were brought in to design the aquatic stadium and the British to build it. The Swiss were appointed to design the main stadium in collaboration with a leading avant-garde Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, responsible for the ‘bird’s nest’ effect of the outer crust of the stadium (even though Ai Weiwei is a vocal critic of the Chinese government). The new airport, with 118 per cent of the capacity of Heathrow terminals 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 combined, and built within budget and ahead of time, was the work of Norman Foster, OM. The headquarters of China’s Central Television is a dramatic brace of leaning towers that make Pisa look vertical, and was designed by the Dutch and German duo Koolhaas and Sheereen. The National Theatre, a science-fiction-looking dome adjacent to Tiananmen Square, is the work of the Frenchman Paul Andreu.
In other words, the best in the Western world have been engaged by the Chinese government to present an impressive backdrop to the Olympic bonanza.
A giant luminous digital clock counting down to the opening ceremony at 8.08 p.m. on 08.08.08 (the number ‘8’ auguring fortune in Chinese feng shui) has become the focus at Tiananmen Square. Nothing seems to matter more. Missiles, not only anti-aircraft ones to protect against terrorist attacks, but also ones loaded with climate seeds to disperse and condense dark clouds and accelerate untimely rainfalls, will be on hand to ensure a beautifully clear day for the opening of the Olympics 2008.
There has been a constellation of other measures. From 20 July, 1.2 million cars will effectively be taken off the roads through a daily rota alternating between number plates ending with odd and even numbers — a system that Lagos first used. Vehicles coming from outside of the capital will be banned — except those delivering essential poultry and fresh vegetables for all the VIPs. Any Chinese without a valid permit to stay in the capital will be instantly deported. On television last week, an octogenarian was revealed to have been recruited by the Public Security Bureau to sneak on anyone in her neighbourhood who did not seem familiar. Although 20,000 journalists have been accredited by the Olympic Committee, the authorities are ready to override specific cases. A Hong Kong-based journalist was refused entry last week. Plain-clothed and uniformed police are pouring into the capital to quash the slightest signs of trouble, especially from Tibet and the Islamic Xinjiang region. For each of the 91,000 spectators for the opening ceremony, individ-ual photograph identity has been required. Theoretically, everyone going through the turnstile will have a picture shown of the holder as the ticket is scanned through a detector.
The anxiety of all the preparations for a perfect Olympic banquet is not confined to the capital. Last week Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is favourite to succeed Hu Jintao, arrived in Hong Kong to inspect the equestrian facilities for the games. He openly lectured the local government to make damn sure that nothing goes wrong. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (Sir) Donald Tsang never smiled a more nervous smile. No doubt the same lecture would have been delivered to Tianjin, where the football games will be played. The bullet train, with a top speed of 350 km/hour, which will link the city to the capital, has been on umpteen trials for perfection, lest vital face is vicariously lost to the Japanese.
There is almost a soft sense of terror among all the officials who have been assigned specific responsibilities of ensuring a trouble-free 17 days. On the whole, China deserves a successful Olympics. But in the process, she will have learned that it is not easy striking a balance between autocratic control within the country and opening up to the outside world. Inside China there are already 221 million users of the internet and 47 million bloggers, who are emerging as a force of formidable criticism of officialdom — exactly the kind of cancer that makes the Politburo nervous. The Tiananmen incident resulted directly from citizens’ discontent with social conditions, and this has become an indelible warning to the Chinese government. Surprisingly, President Hu himself published the fact that in 2007 there were 87,000 incidents of sizeable demonstrations. So China understands the importance of people’s satisfaction. New laws designed to protect the property rights of individuals have been introduced. Ditto labour laws, highly unpopular with employers, protecting the tenure of workers. Citizens can now even phone in to hotlines lodging complaints about officials, although the joke in these early days is that nobody answers them. China understands the necessity of being seen to observe at least some international standards of governance. So the country is enacting laws to protect intellectual property rights, in keeping with its WTO promise, the failure of which so far to keep causing perennial criticism by the US and EU. It remains to be seen, however, how this could be achieved when the piracy industry props up the livelihood of millions living in southern China, in particular Shenzhen, the special economic zone created by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Shenzhen was then a backwater with a population of just 70,000. Within 12 years, it grew to seven million. Today, its population is nine million, and its physical expansion has multiplied 600-fold. This by no means unique example of manic development has underpinned the emergence of China into the 21st century, and the statistics have acted as a magnet to visitors, especially businessmen.
But meanwhile, the only concern of the entire country is that China puts on the best Olympics ever, to be opened with a jaw-dropping ceremony masterminded by China’s greatest visual artist, Zhang Yimou, ex-lover of the Monroesque Gong Li. It will be the one occasion when even Hollywood’s Ben-Hur-ian spectaculars might have to give way to the genius of modern China — a modern China which makes no excuses for copying the West, except in its democratic niceties.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 19, 2008