Forget the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, or Beijing’s other historic sights. The hottest tourist draw today for Chinese visitors to the capital is the Olympic Green, which boasts key competition venues such as the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium and the “Water Cube” swimming pool.
For weeks, special buses have been leaving an Olympic terminal every few minutes, ferrying Beijingers and tourists for a glimpse of the iconic structures. Thousands more thronged the perimeter fence this weekend, snapping pictures and soaking up the pre-Olympic atmosphere in glorious sunshine.
“I feel very emotional about these Games,” said Li Chunfeng, a young nurse, as she prepared to walk around the edge of the green, which is as close as the public can get to the venues. “China has suffered in history, and this is a moment of glory.”
While the Chinese government fends off criticism from abroad about its human rights record, its foreign policy, and Beijing’s air quality, Chinese people appear overwhelmingly proud and excited about the Olympic Games that open here next Friday.
“This is going to be the biggest festival ever in China,” said Qi Jianlan, as she finished taking photos of her husband with the stadium in the far distance. “It’s going to be even more ‘re nao’ than the New Year,” she added, using the phrase Chinese use to describe their favorite atmosphere – “warm and noisy.”
At another level, Ms. Qi hoped, “this will help the world to understand China, and help China become part of the world.”
The state drums up support
It would be easy to ascribe the near universal popular enthusiasm to the single-minded importance that the state-run media has laid on the 2008 Olympic Games ever since they were awarded to Beijing seven years ago.
Certainly the steady drumbeat of the official windup to the Games has reached an unbroken roll: For the past month every aspect of life in the capital, from transport to shopping to entertainment, has been subordinated to Olympic needs in a way no other host city has attempted in recent history.
Nor have Chinese newspapers or TV given their public any hint of the criticism that has been leveled at Beijing in the run-up to the Games, as international reporters complain of Internet censorship at Olympic press centers and human rights groups accuse China of betraying Olympic pledges to improve its record.
‘It’s a big thing for me’
But the people’s ardor seems sincere and deeply felt: nearly 80 percent of Chinese nationwide feel the Olympics are important to them personally, and 96 percent believe the Games will be a success, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
“This is the first time in a hundred years that China has hosted the Olympics,” said Xu Minghai, a businesswoman from Inner Mongolia stopping over on a business trip to admire the Olympic venues. “It’s very exciting because it’s a matter of national pride.”
“We won’t benefit as individuals,” added her husband, Li Ruibing. “But if China grows and becomes strong, our children and our grandchildren will enjoy greater hope.
“The history of the last 100 years has been a history of humiliation for the Chinese. Finally we are standing up, so this is a big moment for all Chinese,” he said.
It has become common for ordinary Chinese to read such historical meaning into an event that in other cities has usually been simply a grand sporting spectacle and a chance to indulge a little civic pride.
“The Olympics mean much more to China than to previous host countries because they have been stressed as the opportunity to showcase ... the country’s achievements,” says Fu Yuanyuan, a young PR consultant. “I think it’s a milestone.”
“It’s a big thing for China, so it’s a big thing for me,” explained Hu Jinan, a businessman from Hubei Province, 500 miles south of Beijing, who had brought his two daughters to the capital to show them the Olympic venues. He rested in the shade Saturday while his girls walked along the fence surrounding the Olympic Green.
Putting up with daily disruptions
Skeptics have raised their voices, but more often in the anonymity of the Internet than on the streets.
As at previous Olympics, some critics are angered by the high costs of the Games: Beijing’s are estimated at around $40 billion, in a country where many citizens remain rooted in poverty. They also point out that many of the city’s poorest residents have lost their homes, as the government seized land for Olympics-related structures.
Others are bothered by the disruptions to daily life in Beijing that the Games have brought. “The five Olympic rings felt like five nooses, slipping one by one onto his neck,” reads a passage in an anonymous satirical short story about current life in China’s capital that has proved enormously popular on the Web.
Most Beijing residents, though, seem prepared to put up with security arrangements that would seem oppressive in most capitals, and with draconian traffic regulations, in order to ensure the Games’ safety and success.
“Tight security is necessary,” says Yao Jiawei, a young journalist. “It keeps foreigners safe, and that’s needed to maintain China’s international image, and the Olympics are also a test of the government’s ability to guarantee ordinary people’s safety.”
“The policies certainly have an impact on our lives,” says an accountant with an IT company who identified herself as Mrs. Wu, complaining about new traffic rules designed to reduce pollution. “But since they are for the Olympics I can put up with them.”
Meanwhile, all billboards in the capital have been taken down and replaced with “Beijing 2008” posters; every lamppost on every major thoroughfare is draped with “Beijing 2008” banners, and from every pedestrian bridge hang proclamations of “One World, One Dream,” China’s Olympic slogan.
Shoppers looking for a souvenir of China’s “once in a century event” jammed counters at the Olympic Flagship Store on Wangfujing, a popular pedestrian precinct, Saturday, choosing between plush toys, pens, playing cards, jade pendants, hats, teapots, and a thousand other items, all decorated with the Beijing 2008 logo.
Was the Olympic obsession not a little excessive, one shopper was asked. “Oh no,” said Tang Nan, a student who said she had already bought all the Beijing 2008 souvenirs she could afford. “It just shows the Chinese people’s enthusiasm.
“I haven’t met anyone who isn’t excited,” she added.