• Whenever Something Goes Wrong, I Blame it on the Beijing Olympics

    Arts & Culture, Environmental Design

    China_432_

    From: http://archpaper.com/e-boardrev.asp?NewsID=2315

    07.29.2008 Protest: China's Olympic Syndrome

    Some years ago in Manhattan while I was riding the subway uptown, a young woman entered the train and began to proselytize to the crowd, which, as usual, paid her no attention. She went on about religion, God, and so forth, and when she was done, I expected a call for donations. Instead, she contributed a bit of worldly wisdom that has stayed with me ever since: “I know we all look good,” she said. “But we’re not all being good.” And she exited the train.

    Years later, those words capture the spirit for me of the Beijing Olympics. As a recent transplant to China (I’ve lived in Shanghai for the last year and a half), the build-up to the Olympics is hugely visible not just in Beijing, but all over the country. From the large banners on the highways in Shanghai to the lampposts that declare simply “Beijing 2008” along the streets, the feeling is in the air. For China, the Olympics has been both a galvanizing force and an exercise in pride, partly deserved, partly not.

    Recently, however, the exercise has not gone entirely according to plan. In spite of their inevitability, the mass protests in Tibet, Xinjiang (the Muslim part of Western China), and Mongolia still caught the government off their usually rigid guard. Even more unpredictable has been the tumultuous time the government has had trying to control the coverage of these events. And when widespread public sympathy during the Sichuan Earthquake led to a huge demand for news, the state could no longer reasonably control the local and foreign media.

    All these occurrences—and its inability to master them leading up to its pride and joy, the Olympics—has made the Chinese government completely paranoid about who it is and is not letting into the country. The result is that the Really Big Show might just be a fizzle. Friends in the hotel, restaurant, and convention business now report things are generally slow in Shanghai. A quick search on the web and a few calls to Beijing hotels reveal there are still plenty of rooms available from August 8 through 24, the dates of the Olympic Games.

    Along with everyone else, whenever something goes awry in Shanghai, I just blame it on the Olympics. When I recently organized a design exhibition in Shanghai, my star speaker, a British citizen flying in from Hong Kong, was denied entry because his valid Chinese visa was going to expire one day after he was supposed to return to Hong Kong—and not in a week as the border patrol had wanted. I blamed that on the Olympics. When the manager of my favorite Italian restaurant comes up to me and tells me that things are really slow in his restaurant and that the big-spending foreign crowd is not showing up, I also blame that on the Olympics.

    The Olympics have laid bare the illogic behind the government’s approach. It invites the world in, but then restricts entry for fear that a bunch of Teva-wearing hippies might show up and disrupt the games. Of course there will be controversy—China is a totalitarian state, after all—but in courting the public stage, China is also courting widespread scrutiny of its atrocious human rights record. More than just Italian restaurants and visa issues, this vast Olympic effort, I fear, is just one huge act of self-deception, where the government’s attempts at damage control are triggering even more damage. In China, the Olympics is all about what China wants the world to perceive about itself, while keeping its true self hidden away.

    Above all, what I blame most on the Olympics is how it implicates architecture in the fabrication of this whole spectacle, and even uses it to mask real urban problems confronting Beijing. Without a doubt, OMA’s CCTV and Herzog and de Meuron’s Olympic Stadium will remain masterpieces in the landscape of the city. But within its Soviet-inspired planning fabric, with its concentric highways lapping outward from the hub of the Forbidden City, huge monolithic-style building threatens to add to the isolation of Beijing’s vast alienating stretches. Anyone who has traveled through rush hour there, where it routinely takes 60 minutes to budge five miles, will have contemplated the poor planning implicated by this level of congestion.

    Architects are well aware of the potential for their spectacles to turn out badly. After designing the building for China’s main propaganda machine—its TV station—Koolhaas has been fighting for more public access to the CCTV tower once it is completed some time next year, and Jacques Herzog is hoping his Olympic Stadium will remain at least in part a public space once sporting events are over. The Watercube National Acquatic Center by PTW Architects, in spite of its wall-to-wall swimming pools, is reportedly going to be turned into a mall after the games. As these architecturally compelling works are reduced to impractical relics, leaving the city as isolating as before or even more so, I will definitely blame that on the Olympics.

    Will the city of Beijing be capable of looking good and being good at the same time? We’ll see. Right now, Beijing is a massive architectural and urban spectacle, but when you turn on your TV sets on August 8, all the fireworks and joyous celebrations should signal one thing: This is not resolved, and all that you see could be silenced in two weeks.

    <i>Andrew Yang is a Shanghai-based freelance journalist, and a former editor of AN.

  • Andrew, great piece. I just watched the opening ceremonies and it was, with out a doubt, an incredible vision of world harmony done with artistic charisma, I'm sure rivaling future celebrations of it's kind. Not to mention it's technological discipline and international awe. It was absolutely a mask. You are right.

    The stage is set, the players in position and the directors poised. So the show begins. But when a country that has so much to hide gets a shot at entertaining the world, they had better make it spectacular, right? The lights and the dance and the pure character of China's people are indeed powerful tools in the hands of this current government. I would say, they nailed it. That is, they succeeded in interpreting what the rest of the world deems as important or truthful, and they did it better than most.

    The themes presented were so harmonious to the "doing good" conscience. So targeted to the thoughtful melting pot of what's relevant now. So, the marketing was done, the demographic chosen, and the budget ramped up to an uncompromising sum, then executed to evoke emotion and sympathy.

    In today's world, if you are semi-intelligent, it should be easy to see this obvious equation. Communicate want they want to hear, in a way that entertains and beckons.

    What should scare us about China? Not only what you've mentioned, but maybe that they are echoing western societies values and methods to mask pain, doubt, and fear. Entertain to the marketable, in a way that they understand. The goal was never to expose or empathize.

    China is interpreting the world through their eyes, even if they are not remotely authentic, we should understand that some of our western ideas and values are so inconsistent with our actions, we should be cautious in our critique. And be watchful to pick up on the "imitation of the empty."

    If the opening ceremony had been an imitation of what western culture should really be about, we would have seen a whole different interpretation of ourselves. But honestly, human rights takes a back seat to global warming, sustainable futures and slow design. The Chinese government has done their home work. The sap and unfathomable goal of global sustainability won-out over the real need to relate "one on one" to human need, freedom and relationship. So we saw us, not them, and we're surprised.

    At least the people of China are not fooled by their government. They know exactly where the line is drawn. Human rights is all they want, and that is a tall order, but I don't think the west likes to make that the cool flag to wave.

    So is human rights what we want? Look at how the world sees us, and you'll know the truth about western priorities.

    Thanks for your insight Andrew, you make us think.

    Jefferson

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