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Diary

Last time I was in China it was for the handover in Hong Kong

22 November 2006

5:45 PM

22 November 2006

5:45 PM

Beijing

Last time I was in China it was for the handover in Hong Kong. I stood in Tiananmen Square with tens of thousands of others as the clock went to midnight. This time another clock is ticking — counting down to the eighth of the eighth of 2008, an especially chosen auspicious date, for the opening of the Olympic Games.

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Beijing in nine years is transformed. Not just the Starbucks you see as you come though customs. Not just the buildings, the ring roads; for Tiananmen Square itself is changing, and at one corner an egg is growing. It is the National Grand Theatre, a great shining blob of a building, positioned in stark contrast to the classic Communist party architecture of Mao’s mausoleum and other party buildings replete with red flags. It will be open for the Games, and you will enter through a glass-roofed passage under the lake that surrounds it. Inside this huge shell there is a theatre, a concert hall and an enormous opera house. We hope — if we can get the funding together — to have the Royal Ballet there just before the Olympics start. The scale of it takes the breath away. ‘Ha,’ said one prominent Chinese artist I was talking to, ‘the egg is the French people’s revenge. They haven’t forgiven us for our architect putting a pyramid in the middle of the Louvre.’ That apart, the building is an awesome sight.

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At the opposite end of the square, Chairman Mao is still on display over the gates of the Forbidden City, but Mao is now a mere brand a kilometre away. Number 798 is an old factory still producing something rather smelly in places, but otherwise the home for artists and galleries and even a small studio theatre. It feels like Hoxton 15 years ago. In one gallery selling contemporary paintings a slogan from the cultural revolution was still on the wall. ‘Chairman Mao is the bright sun in all our hearts,’ it says. Next door, porcelain statues of Mao were for sale — rows of them. ‘They’re for American tourists,’ I was told.

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The old Cultural Revolution was in evidence at the National Ballet headquarters in a room devoted to the company’s illustrious 50-year history. Pictures were on display of Chairman Mao, Cho En Lai, Madam Mao sitting surrounded by dancers. There was a picture of the current director as a young girl out with the peasants putting on The Red Detachment of Women. But all that’s a generation ago. Now in Beijing a new cultural revolution is taking place. Using the Olympics as the spur, the city aims to make itself the cultural capital and centre of China, and to win recognition for itself on the world stage. The municipal government is putting an extra 5 billion Yuan (£300 million) towards achieving its aim. The performing arts are one of its six priorities, which gives us an enormous opportunity. They want the Royal Opera House to help sharing skills in stagecraft, marketing, fundraising and general venue management. They like the UK. ‘You have a long history, like us,’ I kept being told. Unlike America, they muttered.

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Sometimes, thousands of miles away in the UK, you hear the remark that China may build TVs, radios, telephones, computers and so on but our future will be to make our living out of designing things the Chinese make. Our future is as a creative hub for the world. Well, up to a point: I was taken to a beautiful courtyard house to meet one of Beijing’s most senior cultural leaders. She told me that the mayor and the Politburo had decided that as from November they must invest in the creative industries. The dragon is awake there too.

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Beijing and the run-up to the Olympics provide the perfect opportunity for the UK to show off its ‘soft’ power. The British Museum and the V&A are planning exhibitions and we want to be there, too. Other companies and orchestras are planning visits. The goodwill generated by these expeditions is enormous. Every year the Royal Ballet goes on tour and its impact on the audiences is powerful and heartwarming. But it’s hard because financially you are on your own. A number of us have been arguing about the need for a cultural foreign policy, using all the world-class art institutions we have in this country. Tessa Jowell is committed to it. China has convinced me the doors are open, and we need one last push. The British Council is a great organisation, and its team in Beijing did a brilliant job for us, but they need more financial muscle. Goodness knows what we are spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, but couldn’t we spend something on ‘soft’ power too?

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Beijing traffic is a nightmare. Where once there were phalanxes of bikes, there are now phalanxes of cars. It takes an age to move around the city. But this shouldn’t be a problem for the Olympics. When the entire African continent brought all its presidents to the city for a major summit earlier this month, the combination of police and the People’s Liberation Army closed off carriageways and roads to let the VIPs ride past in style. And there doesn’t seem to be any law about driving at speed with a phone jammed to the ear. In fact, there is no code of behaviour at all for the use of mobile phones as far as I could see. Whatever meeting I was in, if one went off, you answered it. Rude not to, I suppose. None of our Western embarrassment or red-face sensitivities.


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