Sunday, January 25, 2009


What did the Beijing Olympics represent? Nothing less than the changeover of world superpowers. China may not dominate the world yet, but it will surely be the decisive nation state of the twenty-first century. Anybody who thought China was still some tinpot Maoist monolith watched the rituals of sport and theatre in Beijing last summer and had to concede that the game was up - London 2012 might as well not bother. Despite some initial disruption, the Tibetan and Falungong protests barely registered. The conclusion was: they may not do democracy, but who cares when they organise such a top-notch opening ceremony?

I visited the Olympic Park last Sunday, mainly to see the Bird's Nest and the Aquatics Centre, but also just to find out what an Olympic Park feels like after the event. Walking up the escalator from the subway, I heard a melodramatic power-ballad over the loudspeaker - the song was called "One world, one dream" (the slogan of the '08 games) and it played on a loop with two other officially-sanctioned songs the entire 2.5 hours I was there (I suspect the music continues into the night, long after all the tourists have gone home). It reminded me of that horribly over-wrought OVO thing that Peter Gabriel did for the Millennium Dome - its incessancy makes resistance futile (and immoral too, of course, for why would you want to resist global unity? All together now, "One world, one dreeeeeeam".....)

The stadia are, of course, at the cutting edge of architectural design. The photos above are of the Bird's Nest being constructed - they are reminiscent of Constant or even early Constructivism. Jonathan Glancey wrote in the Guardian that it was "an adventure in steel and concrete" and only a churl would deny that it is stunning from the outside - it makes London's 2012 stadium look extremely outdated (not so different from its 1948 stadium, in fact). The Bird's Nest, like the airport and the Central Business District (which will get its own post soon), is a building that, for better or worse, looks like the future.

But the overall effect of the Park is strangely futureless. Nothing that happens at the Park - least of all the music - happens without the say-so of the people who guard it. Nothing is spontaneous. The action has passed - people will continue to visit but nothing will ever happen here again.

Even if you are the type whose juices flow at the sight of a sports stadium, you would be hard pressed to describe the inside of the Bird's Nest as anything but tremulously dull. Having paid my 50RMB entrance fee, I entered the stadium, passed a stand selling bottles of iced tea and corn on the cob, walked down the steps and across the pitch. An image of Diana Ross missing from the penalty spot flashed across my brain, and I walked back up the steps and tried to find the exit. I walked half way round the outside, turned back on myself, found the entrance (whereupon uniformed guards shook their heads at me), turned back once more - where was the exit? I was trapped inside the Bird's Nest! My ears would forever ring with the sound of a small child's voice, plaintively singing about that wretched dream! (Fear not - I found the way out eventually, a small gap in the security fence - but it was touch-and-go for a while...)

Compared to the rest of the city, where you can't move for old statues dedicated to workers, there is a conspicuous lack of reference to work here. The Village (and the airport / hotels / bars / cafes etc that were built ready for the Olympics) was not built - or so we are led to believe - they just appeared. (In fact, as this article from the Observer points out, the massive Olympic construction effort involved countless thousands of workers, many of them rural migrants, most earning around $7 a day - and when the cranes and the scaffolding were dismantled in late 2007, the workers were suddenly out of work and on their way back in time to the countryside.) The narrative of the dream (there is only one, remember) in the official promotional film is that anyone can do it, but we know that the dream of becoming an Olympic athlete is only open to the urban middle and upper-class (don't worry - class is alive and well in China, and will be the subject of a more detailed post soon).

In my 2003 Lonely Planet guide to China, the Olympic park is barely mentioned, aside from being a residential area near to the old Asia Games complex. Those residents were, of course, decanted from their homes without a moment's thought. A place where people used to live their lives has now become a dead spectacle, an impressive feat of engineering designed as a representation of the "anyone can do it" lie of the Olympics and the bland, futureless consumption by China's increasingly consumerist (yet class-riven) society. But as such, it beats the plans for London 2012 into a cocked hat.


Blogger Snowball said...

Speaking of class divisions in China, have you seen any evidence of these riots?

6:22 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Not directly, but industrial action has been brewing for some time now - even at China's peaks of economic growth, employment has not been secure - the Olympics is a good example of this: a construction worker working for a contractor will get lots of work for 9 months or so, but will have no secure work to fall back on when that finishes. Because many people working in this temporary way in the cities are actually dispossessed rural migrants, they lack basic rights (to benefits, assembly, redress etc) that urban workers enjoy.

As the report says, if China doesn't reach 8% growth, there are fears that un- and under-employment could reach such a point that riots spread across the country. The Chinese government has been willing to give in when demonstrations are localised or specific to a particular issue (e.g. a bankrupt company refusing to give its redundant employees their pensions), but when demos become more general and nationwide, I suspect the government will respond more forcefully.

What is ironic about this is that the neoliberal / "reformist" / one-party solution pursued by the CCP since the death of Mao has had a single raison d'etre: to prevent the sort of chaos that came out of the Cultural Revolution from ever happening again. It looks like those very policies may lead to a different, but equally potent, chaos in the coming months and years.

5:59 AM  

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