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Bracing for the five-ring circus

Flux is China’s constant—and in pre-Olympic Beijing especially so. There is a Chinese saying that richly encapsulates this society’s rapid changes. It goes something like this: ‘In the 1980s everyone greeted each other by asking “have you eaten yet?”; in the 1990s the greeting was “have you got divorced yet?”; and in 2000 everyone asks each other “have you connected to the internet yet?’” Soon the question could well be ‘have you got your Olympics tickets yet?’ Even though the Olympics are three years away, it feels as though the five-ring circus has already arrived.

When Beijing’s team proposed their city as the 2008 host they built their bid around three themes: hosting a ‘Green Olympics’, a ‘Hi-tech Olympics’ and ‘the People’s Olympics’. In order to implement each of these themes the city planners are undertaking an ambitious urban redevelopment program involving everything from building grand stadia to printing a new series of English-language textbooks for primary-school children. It is no surprise then that the motto for Beijing is ‘New Beijing, Great Olympics’.

The July 2001 announcement of Beijing’s successful bid was celebrated with great joy in the streets, bars and restaurants throughout the city. In recent times those same venues are feeling the ramifications of this success. On the whole, one senses that although the citizens of Beijing are still proud and excited to be hosting the games—a 2001 survey showed that 95 per cent of the city’s population supported the bid—they are now conscious of the immense work that is involved in bringing this ‘new Beijing’ into being.

A quick number crunch illustrates the size of the task confronting China’s capital. According to figures supplied by the Information Office of the Beijing Municipal Government, as of June 2004 Beijing had 14.2 million registered residents, with an estimated further four million people comprising the floating, or migrant, population. The floating population refers to those who have come from other cities looking for short-term work and who have not procured official residency status. More often than not this workforce is involved in the hard labour of the construction industry, with very low rates of pay and tough living conditions.

It is these more than 18 million people who are feeling the effects of the pre-Olympic development program and who will also reap its benefits. A cornerstone of the improvement to the city’s infrastructure is the development of large-scale intra-city transportation services. These have been designed to deal with two issues—the increase in tourists and the present-day traffic jams.

One example is the new fast-speed 27km railway line planned between Dongzhimen (in the city’s inner north-east) and the Capital International Airport, which itself will build a new terminal to handle an extra 17 million passengers during the years before the Games. The half-hour ride in a taxi from airport to city, that can cost from 70–200 RMB (roughly A$12–$33), will be reduced to a 15-minute train ride for substantially less, and with greater comfort.

Anything that also helps to alleviate the nightmare that is the daily commute will be welcomed by visitor and resident alike. Beijing traffic is regularly at a standstill during peak periods, in large part due to the presence of more than two million registered vehicles in Beijing, 1.28 million of which are privately owned, and more than 65,000 of which are taxis. It has been reported that in 2002 there were more than 16,500 traffic jams. This situation has been exacerbated in recent years by the construction work on a further eight subway lines, including the already mentioned airport service and services that go some way towards solving the long-standing problems of travelling between the north of the city and the southern suburbs.

The north-western section of the city is home to many of the prestigious universities and to Haidian, Beijing’s technology district; the south has attractions such as the Temple of Heaven and various markets and speciality shopping districts. The two older subway lines comprise 95km of track and this will be increased by roughly a further 150km, with rail transport topping 300km of track by 2008. Improvements are also being made to the existing services, with platform vending machines and electronic ticketing systems being introduced. Once the new lines are built, bus interchanges enhanced and expressways further improved, there is no question that it will be much easier to travel around the new Beijing. Again, the numbers illustrate what a feat this will be. Transport officials claim that by the year of the ‘great Olympics’, the capacity of Beijing’s buses and trolley buses will reach 4.5 billion passengers a year and that there will be 18,000 vehicles in operation.

As construction grinds its way through the areas of Dongdan and Xidan, for instance, buses inch their way through the clogged streets and commuters resign themselves to delays. Although people understand that there will be long-term gain from all the developments, this doesn’t lessen the pain in the meantime. Any Olympic records will have been made possible by the stoic endurance of every Citizen Wang. Beijing commuting could indeed be one of the 2008 local events. Just as Sydney had beach volleyball, so too could the great Olympics have ‘Beijing buses’. Medals could be awarded to both the commuters and the drivers. The drivers in particular could be judged according to a sliding scale of difficulty based on the number of jaywalking pedestrians they swerved to avoid and the number of meandering cyclists for whom they had to brake.

Competitive commuting has also produced its own etiquette. Although it is good form to look as though one is queuing for the bus or subway train, one’s real form is revealed in the speed and ease with which one boards the vehicle of choice. Getting a seat is on a par with running 100 metres in under 10 seconds. Olympic wrestling champions could also well be identified in this process. Although repeated public announcements encourage passengers to let people alight first and then allow others to board—and indeed the majority try to observe this rule—the peak-hour frenzy means that often the sheer press of numbers pushing towards the door creates a maul as intense as any Bledisloe encounter. According to ‘the first law of the subways’, as intricate as any quantum theory, it is more often than not the stockier, grey-haired grandmother who first pops out the other side of the mass of bodies. (The second law states that it is the person carrying 20 bags who usually stands in the doorways, refusing to move.)

The journey can also be an endurance event in itself. Strap-hanging on the bus, commuters are joined together closer than a stack of Beijing-duck pancakes, with various interlocking elbows, hips, shoulders and groins making the ride home more like a game of Twister than a period of postwork down time. The concept of personal space is a Western construct, with the mores of bus etiquette demanding that, no matter how close the physical encounter, one keeps a show of outward passivity, a kind of Chan Buddhist-inspired sense of detachment.

For all the challenges and frustrations, however, outward expressions of tension are surprisingly low. As many locals comment, there is simply no other way, and whether one is patient or impatient, the journey won’t go any quicker. It is this patience of the citizens and the general acceptance of the efforts that must be exerted by all, as illustrated by the improvements in the transport system, that points to Beijing being able to fulfil its goals of building a new city and hosting a memorable Olympics.

In many ways, however, the Olympics can be seen as a distraction for China’s leadership. Indeed, there are issues of far greater importance facing the world’s most populous nation. For instance, on 3 December 2004 it was reported in The China Daily that last year saw the death of well over 4150 coal miners from floods, fires, explosions and other disasters. The article further stated that China ‘reported 80 per cent of the world’s total coal mining-related deaths, although it produced only 35 per cent of the world’s coal’. Further, ‘China has seen an annual average of about one million industrial accidents since 2001, according to the State Administration of Work Safety, with nearly 140,000 deaths each year’. Equally, issues of increasing economic disparities between the inland and coastal provinces, the size of the domestic rice and grain harvests, the rise in the incidence of HIV and AIDS, let alone ongoing tensions with Taiwan, all demand the attention of China’s leadership. For all Jacques Rogge’s enthusiasm, the Olympics are in many ways but a sideshow. This would be true according to all and any rational criteria.

Yet, even so, the sense of excitement in Beijing as it remakes itself and the sense of national pride evoked by being the Olympic hosts means that reason is not as much set aside as matched by emotion. The more than 400 million young people throughout China cannot wait to don their red, gold and white supporters’ uniforms and cheer on their champions—be it the 2004 gold-medal women’s volleyball team, the flew-from-afar hurdle champion Liu Xiang or the young boys and girls in the country’s sporting academies daily diving and tumbling their way towards a new Beijing and a great Olympics. Only just over 1000 days to go!   

Jeremy Clarke sj has recently returned from doctoral fieldwork in Beijing. He is undertaking a doctorate at the Australian National University in Canberra, researching the contemporary history of the Catholic communities in China. Images: Jeremy Clarke.



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