Friday, August 8, 2008 | 4:00 AM EDT
During the Beijing Olympics, the National Committee is emailing its members and friends a series of “postcards” from China. The cards, intended to provide local color to complement the extensive media coverage of the Games, come from friends of the Committee attending events, observing the proceedings in Beijing and beyond, and reflecting on what they see and hear. The most recent postcard appears on top.
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August 26, 2008
by Paul Liu
Growing up in a sports-obsessed Ann Arbor, Michigan, I watched each summer Olympic Games of my childhood with intense interest, from Mexico City through Moscow. Ironically, having lived in Shanghai for the last nine years, I have to admit I was suffering from Olympic fatigue. The overwhelming focus, concentration of resources, amazing commercialization, and finally the staking of the national reputation on the Games had me in a very cynical mood. My gut told me that it was just excessive. From my perch in Shanghai I proudly proclaimed early and loudly that I was not going north. My more vocal Shanghainese friends also took the opportunity to gripe passionately and intensely.
The run-up to the Games intensified my cynicism as business visas became more difficult to obtain, renewals were rejected, customs clearance tightened, approvals which seemingly had nothing to do with the Games slowed, and the government apparatus went into protection mode. In fact, Shanghai established a committee that roughly translated was called the “Protect the Olympics Committee.” This body was called on to approve all large scale events in the run-up to the Olympics — in essence it was a committee with a very large NO stamp attached to its figurative forehead. Pre-Olympic business gymnastics ensued as we worked our way through the restrictions (we scored a 10).
Then the Games began . . . and with them amazing scenes that I associated with my sporting childhood. Sportsmanlike camaraderie and fellowship blazed across my 46″ made-in-China Samsung TV that I bought specially for the Games (yes, the hype was getting to me). Text messages flowed as I wrote my cynical friends, “Amazing!” during the Opening Ceremony. One reply from my most jaded friend was, “That’s just the way China is!” (zhongguo jiushi zhege yangzi). The comment demonstrated pride yet contained a subtle resignation. Then the phone calls started rolling in from friends in Beijing telling me how enchanting the Games were. My resolve cracked when a friend told me he had two tickets to the athletics events on Friday evening at the Bird’s Nest. I hopped on the Shanghai – Beijing express from Hongqiao Airport and two hours later was walking like a country bumpkin through Terminal Three at Beijing International Airport, mouth agape.
The evening at the Bird’s Nest was indeed magical but I will leave the superlative descriptions of the hardware and sports to others. What impressed me most was the crowd around us. We were in the first tier near the pole vault pit, surrounded by a crowd that was overwhelmingly Chinese. They cheered lustily for the Chinese athletes as they lagged behind in the distance track & field events. There were no negative comments from those around me. Rather, babies were passed overhead from mother to father, uncle to auntie through the crowd. People shared food and drink. The family atmosphere was indeed magical. When the Brazilian woman long-jumper took the gold the crowd erupted with joy. As the Canadian 5,000 meter runner was struggling to finish her race a full lap behind the winners, everyone erupted in an enthusiastic “jia you” [go!]. The spectators were joyful, grateful, respectful and self-confident.
Leaving the stadium after Australian Steve Hooker broke the Olympic pole vault record, I was struck by how special the whole evening was and how grateful I was to be able to experience first-hand this historic event. Looking at the gargantuan infrastructure around me I mused at how the lead-up to the Games and the event itself says much about “socialist market economy” China. On a macro level tremendous resources can still be marshaled and prioritized through a government structure that when focused can be laser-like in intensity. At the micro level, however, subtlety and fine-tuning are often lacking. Instead, in the pursuit of the larger goal, detritus in the wake is accepted, especially when it comes to issues of reputation and face.
Now comes the post-mortem both in China and from outside observers. There is no doubt that the Games will do much to undo some of country’s sense of historical insecurity, and rightly so. A more introspective look would not be a bad thing and thoughtful discussions in the Chinese space are already starting. As an American in China I am waiting for the inevitable question to come up in the Presidential debates: “Given China’s recent tremendous success in hosting the Games, do you think China is more a threat or an opportunity?” The Olympics tell me that perhaps the question should be rephrased: “Given the afterglow of the Olympics, how can we make sure China is more engaged with us and the world than ever before?”
From an Olympic cynic to a cautiously optimistic and impressed bit player. Good job Beijing! Now, onwards to the Shanghai 2010 World Expo! Start the countdown clock and while you are at it, please approve my socialist market corporate sponsorship bid!
Paul Liu, long-time member of the National Committee, lives in Shanghai where he is CEO of Axons Concepts.
August 25, 2008
by Steve Okun
An American Fan’s Perspective
A great deal of commentary on the Olympics focuses on the impact the Games will have from a geopolitical, national and economic perspective. I want to look at something much more mundane: what it has been like going to Olympic events through the eyes of a person brought up on U.S. sporting events.
Probably the most striking memory is of the grandeur of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. These stadiums alone make any event that happens in them special. The new Olympic venues are breathtaking the first time they are seen, and to me there is no stadium or venue in the United States built recently that compares. Sure, Camden Yards and other new baseball stadiums are wonderful facilities, but the Chinese creations are unique – truly beyond compare.
Another element is the way everyone at the venues, from ushers to security guards, treats visitors. Every single time I enter the Olympic Green, I am welcomed with “Hello,” “Nice to know you,” “Welcome to Beijing,” or some such variant. And everyone who says it seems to mean it.
This courtesy extends into the venues, where athletes from every country are always cheered. Even in finals in which teams from China play other countries, when the “visiting team” makes a great play, they are cheered by the “home fans”.
One of my American bilingual friends found amusing the English translation of the Chinese chant heard in every venue, “Jia You, Zhongguo Dui.” In this context it means “Let’s Go, China Team!” The literal translation of “Jia You,” however, is to refuel, as in putting gasoline into one’s car. As my friend was explaining the translations, we saw many Chinese fans wearing shirts with the Chinese characters for “Jia You, Zhongguo Dui” and the words “Refueling China” in English underneath. As a Chinese friend commented, “This is English with Chinese characteristics.”
On the downside, there is very little food within the venues. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could bring food or drinks inside, but that’s not allowed. Nor is exiting and re-entering. Hunger can thus be quite a problem. All that is offered are snacks like potato chips and candy bars, with the occasional hot dog showing up. Some events last six hours; add in travel time and security checks, and we are talking about ten hours from start to finish and a lot of hungry people! (What I would have given for Boog’s BBQ from Oriole Park at Camden Yards!)
As expected, there were seats in the venues reserved for the media and Olympic officials. However, other than for the major events, such as Michael Phelps’ races or gold medal team games, a notable number of these seats were vacant. It’s a shame that there was no way to be more flexible with them, as people presumably would have attended if they had been able to.
All in all, however, from this American fan’s perspective, going to these Games was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
Steven Okun is Vice President for Public Affairs in Asia, United Parcel Service.
August 22, 2008
by Sean Molloy
As a recent returnee to Beijing after more than a decade away, I initially looked forward to August 8 with an equal mixture of anticipation and trepidation. On the positive side, the recent greening of Beijing, along with the complete transformation of the city’s skyline, transport infrastructure, and many new marquee buildings and event venues has been truly impressive. On the other hand, events just prior to the opening did little to allay naysayer fears; hot weather, bad air days, and continuing earthquake tremors and regional terrorist attacks kept Beijingers anxious right up until Li Ning’s now famous jog around the rim of the Bird’s Nest. Ever since that explosive opening night, however, it has been apparent that China and its people are more than ready to embrace this long awaited honeymoon with the global community.
The past two weeks have shown that China is not only capable of managing a world class event with competence and flair, but it can do so on a nearly unprecedented scale, and with a great deal of charm to boot. The athletes have also risen to the challenge, competing courageously, slashing previous records, and occasionally inspiring us with unforgettable, transcendent performances. My personal experiences attending the evening track and field programs of August 16 and 19 exceeded my expectations both in terms of the preparedness (and graciousness) of the Chinese hosts and the quality and excitement of individual athletic performances.
My trips to the national stadium began with a short walk to the nearby subway station. The newly renovated subway lines, which I had not ridden since a previous posting to Beijing in the late nineties, were crowded but exceedingly efficient and well run. The sparkling new facilities were complemented by colorfully clad and smiling volunteers on hand to direct people, disburse tickets and answer questions. I spoke with a number of college-age Chinese volunteers on one of our train rides, and was impressed not only with their manners and poise, but with the clear sense of ownership, pride, and responsibility they assumed for the success of the games. Everyone in China, it seems, from local cabbies to Hu Jintao, is proud to be a goodwill ambassador to the world during these few weeks.
Once we passed the security gates and entered the Olympic Green, the energy and anticipation of the crowds around us came alive. Musicians and dancers performed everything from reggae tunes to Latin salsa outside the sponsor venues, with ticket holders dancing and swaying to the rhythms on their way to the stadium. Chinese families from around the country and first-time China visitors from around the world buzzed with excitement as the Olympic flame came into view. Cameras flashed and greetings were exchanged, as foreign and Chinese visitors posed for pictures with one another to mark the moment. Chinese children were in rare form, bedecked in their best clothes and adorned with a smattering of flags, makeup, and national stickers applied by doting relatives.
Once inside the stadium, the drama and conflicting opinions around China’s preparedness to host the games were replaced by the universal appeal of athletes in competition. The foreigners in attendance seemed to forget they were in China, donning their national colors and breaking out in national cheers for favored hometown athletes. The Chinese also relaxed into the moment, breaking into chants of “zhongguo jia you” [“Go China”] at the mention of any local athlete. At one point, the entire crowd came together to complete “the wave,” with collective cheers rising and falling in a sustained chant that circled the stadium.
The competitions initiated local and foreign fans alike to the Olympic experience, allowing everyone to ogle celebrities, celebrate inspiring victories, and empathize with those who had to endure failed dreams. Tony Blair popped his head out from a booth a few rows back when the U.K. won gold in the women’s 200M final, creating a buzz of finger pointing and camera flashing that engulfed our entire section for the better part of 20 minutes. As I left the competition and joined the flow of fans leaving the grounds at the end of each evening, I was impressed by the feeling that, despite our differences, the universal celebration of human potential and athletic competition ultimately brings us together in ways that few other things can.
As the closing ceremonies come to an end and Beijing’s flame is extinguished, China’s “honeymoon” celebration with the international community will come to a close. Much hard work and sacrifice will remain if the relationships between China and other countries are to grow and prosper, but, like all honeymoons, the thrills and memories forged in this period will create good will that can help inspire and sustain the efforts required to meet future challenges. I feel fortunate to have been part of the celebration.
Sean Molloy, program officer at the National Committee 2001-2004, now lives in Beijing where he is regional director, Asia Pacific, for the LoJack Corporation.
August 24, 2008
by Hong Yang
Two days before the Opening Ceremony was set to begin, I was told by a friend who works in the Forbidden City that a large number of firefighters would be brought into the Forbidden City on the evening of August 8, in case the fireworks display went wrong. This news stunned my colleague, as the entire ancient architectural complex of nearly 10,000 rooms was made of wood: the potential damage was enormous. No fireworks of any kind had ever lit the sky above this most precious national heritage site, even for National Day celebrations. But this is the Olympics! Many things in Beijing have been unprecedented these days. It turned out, as the world watched, that one of the 29 “foot-step” fireworks passed over the old emperor’s home on the way to the newest landmark of Beijing, the Bird’s Nest.
I was in China to coordinate three programs organized through the U.S. – China Institute at Bryant University: a summer study program for students; a STARTALK China program (a U.S. government-funded initiative to strengthen the teaching and learning of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian, and Urdu among Americans); and a Bryant alumni Beijing Olympics trip. Although each group had its own goals and objectives, the Beijing Games were the highlight for the diverse participants, ranging from high school students to corporate CEOs. Some people purchased tickets for various events in advance; those who had no tickets planned to watch the free events – the men’s and women’s marathons. To be in Beijing at such an historic time was a privilege.
The Beijing Olympic Games are a part of many ordinary Chinese people’s daily life these days. This was clear in my travels outside Beijing when the Games began. Everywhere I went – in airports and restaurants, on buses, during flights – live TV coverage focused on the event. In Jingning County, Zhejiang Province, more than 1,000 miles away from Beijing, a remote mountain village is home to the She people, one of China’s minorities. Even here cheers rang out as members of our host family clustered in their bamboo house to watch the performance of the Chinese diving team. Outside their house the “One World, One Dream” banner was displayed in a prominent place.
As a scientist, I was intrigued by some of the new technologies that were incorporated into the Games: the controlled fireworks and the large “paper scroll” central to the Opening Ceremony, the efforts to move polluted industries out of Beijing and to control vehicle emission during the Games. Friends working for the National Weather Bureau told me that more than a thousand cloud defusing rockets were fired into the sky near Beijing in the early evening of August 8 to break dark clouds that were moving toward the Bird’s Nest.
With viewers around the globe watching the magnificent Opening Ceremony that was filled with new and traditional Chinese culture, I predict that the already heated interest in China and Chinese culture among foreigners will only intensify in the years to come.
My decade-long experience has confirmed that most Americans who visited China in the past returned with a more positive view of the country. This will be particularly true for summer 2008 travelers. The eyes of our students and alumni in Beijing are already on another major event that will happen in China: the 2010 Shanghai Expo, which will rival the Beijing Olympics in many ways.
Hong Yang, an alumnus of the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program, is a professor of environmental science and director of the U.S.-China Institute at Bryant University in Rhode Island.
August 20, 2008
by Liu Zhouyan
Experiencing the Olympics in Person
I was extremely excited when I was told, before the summer vacation, that my school would organize a trip for us to watch the Olympic Games at the Bird’s Nest on August 15. I was very much looking forward to the Games.
The day finally came. We were all excited on our way there, and our joyous feeling was hard to disguise. After a long ride on the subway, we finally arrived at the Bird’s Nest. I had seen it numerous times on television and in newspapers. Still, I could not help but feel awed by its beauty and magnificence when I saw this gigantic structure in real life for the first time. The Olympic flame was burning in the main torch tower under the blue sky. This made the Bird’s Nest look even more majestic, and inspired a certain kind of sacredness that commanded reverence from the bottom of the heart. The Water Cube at a distance, which resembled a crystal palace in an azure ocean, also entered our vision. It matched the National Stadium on the east, forming a uniquely beautiful picture. We all stopped to take pictures.
As I entered the stadium, I was curious about everything. This was my very first time watching track and field competitions in such a huge stadium. My classmates and I were talking and laughing, discussing continually the beautiful stadium and the competitions that were taking place. The preliminary heats of the men’s 100-meter were about to start; we followed each of the competitions eagerly. When superstars like Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay appeared, there was the warmest ovation from the audience. And when the Chinese athlete Hu Kai made his appearance, the atmosphere in the stadium reached its climax. We waved the Chinese flag in a frenzy while shouting his name to cheer him on. When we knew that Hu Kai smoothly advanced to the next round of the competition, I was exhilarated. The women’s 100-meter hurdles, women’s 800-meter, hammer throw, shot put, high jump and other track and field games were equally splendid. Athletes from different countries compete on the same field; the audience cheered for each and every one of them; they all strived with their utmost effort on the field for the same dream. This, I think, was the manifestation of the Olympic spirit.
Out of the stadium, we had a good tour around the central district of the Olympic Park. Standing amid such magnificent architecture as the Water Cube, the Chinese Folding Fan (the National Stadium), International Broadcast Center (IBC), and the Fencing Hall of the National Convention Center, and watching friends from afar gathering in Beijing for the grand event of the Olympics, a strong feeling of national pride was aroused in me. I felt proud being a Chinese, and blessed for witnessing in person this great historical moment.
Our trip to the Olympic Games was soon finished, but it would leave me unforgettable memories that would last forever. Through such a rare activity organized by the school, I had the opportunity to watch games at the National Stadium during the Olympics. I felt extraordinarily lucky to experience the Olympic spirit so intimately, and to witness in person the milestone event for the Chinese people. This experience was also an invisible form of education for me. I learned so much during this day, and it was certainly a memorable experience in my life.
Liu Zhouyan is a middle school student in Beijing.
Translated by Rong Fu, National Committee intern.
August 22, 2008
by Jan Berris
As the world watches, China is hosting a world-class Olympics, featuring a dazzling opening ceremony conducted on a colossal scale in a city that has transformed itself to an unprecedented degree. The Chinese have shown that they are not just creators of wonderful spectacles, inspirational architecture and awesome economic growth, but are also capable of terrific athletic prowess, winning far more gold medals than any other country.
Yet many are unaware of the remarkable transformation this represents for China’s athletes, who resumed participating in the Olympics only twenty-eight years ago, at the 1980 winter games in Lake Placid. China withdrew from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1958 to protest the IOC’s continued recognition of Taiwan. This changed in 1979 when it adopted a formula enabling the People’s Republic and Taiwan to send separate teams. The PRC intended their inaugural participation to be at the 1980 summer Olympics, but the team did not attend, in support of the United States-led boycott of the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Among the first Americans the 1980 Chinese Olympic team members met were National Committee board and staff, who hosted a stopover in New York City for them, complete with a welcoming dinner, a tour of the city and ring side seats at a performance of the “Ice Capades.” The group leader, Li Menghua, then head of the All-China Sports Federation, was an old friend, having headed the Chinese table tennis team that came to the United States in April 1972 under the auspices of the National Committee and the U.S. Table Tennis Association.
The twenty-three athletes China’s Sports Federation sent to Lake Placid competed in speed skating, figure skating, alpine skiing, cross country skiing and winter biathlon. The fact that they won no medals at those first games in 1980 makes all the more remarkable their progress since then.
Jan Berris is vice president of the National Committee.
August 17, 2008
by Michael Ipson
A Family Olympics
Saturday evening, August 16, I went to the Olympic Park for the second day of track and field events. While I witnessed the greatest 100 meter performance in history, what I really saw was the Family Olympics.
Although the evening events began at 7:00 p.m., my colleague encouraged me to go early to wander around the Olympic arenas, so I arrived at 4:30. As I strolled around the expansive grounds, the overwhelming majority of people who were there to attend were Chinese families. Most were parents with children — some couples and a child, many fathers with a son or daughter aged anywhere from five years old to teenage, many mothers with a son or daughter, and some three generation groups. Parents and children alike often had small Chinese flags painted on their faces or carried foot-square Chinese and Olympic flags.
The atmosphere was both festive and relaxed. Many people were sitting on grassy areas — no silly rule that you had to stay off of the grass. Photo taking was a favorite pastime. One of the most popular poses was to stand with an arm outstretched, fingers curved, taken at an angle to give the impression the person was grasping the huge Olympic Torch burning atop the Bird’s Nest National Stadium.
The organizers also made it economically friendly for families. Food and drink stands were dotted around the grounds and within the stadiums, with a 600 milliliter (20 ounce) bottle of Coke costing just under 75 cents, and a meat and rice box meal for less than $3.00. The rice box meals are heated by a self-contained chemical process; the vendors have staff members who initiate the procedure for the customer, who just waits a minute and then has a hot meal. Crackers, popcorn and hot dogs are also available at similarly reasonable prices.
Entering the Olympic Park went smoothly. The public was directed to gates distributed around the vast Park. Volunteers wearing colorful Olympic polo shirts guided us through the process with ready smiles and a warm greeting, “Please enjoy the Games,” as they also cheerfully answered queries. Their English ranged from decent to totally fluent, and they were sincerely welcoming. A visual check that your ticket was for that day sent you to a line where the ticket was electronically verified, and then a security check, handled efficiently and politely — bags through the x-ray machine and the passing of the wand over your body to detect metal. Then on to the grounds.
The arenas are spectacular. The Water Cube glistens with its cloudlike swirls, silver in the sunlight and pinkish-purple when illuminated at night. The Bird’s Nest is impressive, inside and out. The latticework outside structure looks just like the taro flour baskets Chinese restaurants fashion to hold food. The three levels of seating sweep around the field, comprised of individual plastic seats supported by a single pillar, with a random scheme of predominately red interspersed with white seats. Sitting for four hours was not especially comfortable, but the seats are separated by a couple of inches so that you are not sharing hips with your neighbor (unless he/she happens to be a former weightlifter or shotputter). I sat part way up in the first tier, but I went upstairs to look at the track before the events began, and the view was majestic. There are no pillars to block the view, and there are two large screens at either end of the stadium to provide information. During the period running up to the start of the events videos about the Games were broadcast.
The track and field events were managed well. There were numerous officials to ensure safety during the throwing events and to ensure no one wandered onto the track during a race. The Chinese applied technology to the javelin portion of the women’s heptathlon, using radio controlled cars to carry the javelins back to the throwing area after the length of the throw was measured by an electronic surveyor. Saturday night also included the heptathlon 800 meter run, men’s long jump qualifying, women’s shot put, men’s 400 meter hurdles semi-final, women’s 100 meter heats, men’s 100 meter semi-final and final, and women’s 800 meter semi-final. In each of the running events the ground crew (young men) put out lane number stands and starting blocks. High school-aged girls marched out and took positions behind the lane number markers with baskets to hold the warm-up suits of the runners. The runners came out and did their preparations, and then the girls retreated, and everyone was ready for the start. There was an impressive but not overbearing sense of precision.
The spectators were probably 90% Chinese, and a grab bag of foreigners. The Canadians and Aussies were the most vocal among the foreigners in my section. The Chinese cheered on their compatriots lustily but without rancor, and they voiced pleasure with any good performance, whatever the nationality. I was particularly impressed with the women’s heptathlon. There was a wide range of skill displayed in the javelin portion. Near the end of the evening the 800 meter run was held in heats of seven. This is a killer event, after the women have already competed for two days. For two or three athletes, it is a chance to make up ground with a good performance. For most, it is a matter of hanging on long enough to finish, followed by an exhausted collapse to the ground. I was struck by the fact that the Chinese lady who finished sixth in her heat recovered and then helped three of her competitors climb back to their feet in a nice display of the Olympic spirit. But most notable was that when the competition was over and the results known, the entire contingent of athletes circled the stadium as a group, pausing to bow to the audience at intervals. While the three medal winners were draped in their national flags, it was an extraordinary display of camaraderie.
In both the men’s 100 meter heats and the final, there was an air of electricity in the stadium among foreigners and Chinese alike. The spectators knew it was a blue-ribbon field and they were expecting something big. It is striking how the Caribbean nations now dominate the sprints. The final was historic. Usain Bolt emerged from the field around the 40 meter mark, and at 90 meters he looked around and saw he was all by himself. He stopped pumping his arms, opened them outward at his side, palms facing upwards. Although he broke the world record by three-hundredths of a second, several meters in front of everyone else, he undoubtedly would have cut another five-hundredths of a second off that if he had followed through to the finish. The crowd responded wildly.
I have read comments in the international press that include criticism of security measures and empty seats. My experience certainly does not accord with some of these reports. I saw no soldiers, and really no regular police uniforms. The presence of the security staff was not stifling, and the ticket checkers, seating guides and bag examiners were much more than polite. They exuded a sense of welcome, displaying warm smiles, and no doubt were proud that China is hosting the Olympics. They want it to be a success, and they want locals and foreigners alike to enjoy the experience.
This is really an Olympics aimed at local families, while also designed to give the world a more positive view of China.
Michael Ipson, long-time member of the National Committee, is Country Manager, China and Mongolia, of the International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group. He lives in Beijing.
August 12, 2008
by Jan Kiely
– An Eye on the Approaching Olympics from Nanjing
Although Nanjing was constantly reminded of the approaching Olympics during the past academic year, I only began to pay attention when my daughters, ages six and four, became followers of the Fuwa [“good luck dolls” – the five Olympic mascots]. Each had her favorite. Every ubiquitous Fuwa apparently possessed a personality and a distinct cuteness all its own. This campaign of toy-commercialism won over my daughters as did other fuzzy, stuffed creatures available at the new Nanjing branch of Toys-R-Us. Joining the new spirit of Madison Avenue were the institutional mobilizations familiar from my earlier years in China. My daughters learned the Fuwa song by heart in school – and dances, too – which were performed on many a collective occasion. “Beijing huanying ni!” [Beijing welcomes you] they would sing out at the top of their lungs. It was at once adorable and troubling.
Well before the Olympic torch reached Nanjing, much had sobered the Hopkins-Nanjing Center community. Anxieties about inflation in China and pressure on currency valuation, and the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak had been followed with the force of great crashing waves by news of the Tibetan riots and crackdown, and then the horrific May 12 earthquake. Amidst all of this, the reports of the unhappy global trek of the torch, which slipped in on the Internet and flickered off and on as CNN was intermittently blocked and unblocked and then appeared packaged in patriotic outrage by the Chinese media, only darkened the atmosphere. Most likely our bi-cultural, bi-lingual international graduate institute – the Hopkins-Nanjing Center – was the only academic institution in mainland China where open discussion of the sensitive issues of the day took place and where Americans and Chinese attempted sustained dialogue. Although many important lessons were hopefully learned and will long be remembered from this period, such discussions were difficult, stilted, and strained during the time of hardening perspectives and tensions that preceded the games.
The official announcement of the arrival of the torch in Nanjing on May 27 (delayed by the earthquake mourning period) seemed destined only to deepen divisions. The Chinese Co-Director and I were informed in writing by Public Security that the torch route would pass the northern edge of our campus on Beijing West Road in the middle of the day. We were to enforce rather draconian and, in my view entirely unnecessary, special security regulations: a section of the sidewalk would be reserved for those in our community who registered in advance (we were urged to have our own red and white hats and t-shirts available for those who wanted to wear them); only certain specified banners and flags and certain colors could be carried or flown both on the street and by students watching from behind our perimeter fence; nobody was to be allowed on the three large roof-top decks over-looking the avenue; no windows could be open and nothing could hang from windows or decks on the Beijing West Road side. I observed to our joint leadership that the negative impression produced by such regulations would be far more costly in the long run than whatever security breaches were feared by local officials. Nonetheless, we prepared, as ever, to obey the local laws and regulations.
The morning of the torch run, Nanjing was abuzz early. Hours before the torch arrived, my daughters accompanied by their Fuwa and I looked out (through closed windows!) from our seventh floor apartment at throngs decked out in red T-shirts, many with similar baseball caps, arrayed all along this normally sparsely populated stretch of Beijing West Road. I had not seen crowds of this size in China since the 1989 student movement. And, I thought, this Nanjing neighborhood probably had not hosted such large, excited crowds since the early Cultural Revolution. I sauntered out from my office at mid-day to join the large gathering of Center students, faculty and staff by our northern perimeter fence. Although there was a uniformity in color schemes (red, white, yellow), flags and banners, the crowd scene and festivities, once I was amidst it, felt like Mardi Gras or a souped-up Rose Bowl parade. The pounding music, brightly-colored glitz, scantily-clad models, waving local celebrities and flashy corporate promotions of the passing floats and shining vehicles looked more like the theater of Vegas or Disney than that of Mao or Deng. The crowd was filled with festive people of all generations, snapping photos, eating snacks, shouting and talking and cheering — excited, celebratory, joyful.
Then I saw down the avenue the hand-off of the torch to a young woman who began to jog slowly, smiling and waving, up our block. As the cheering rose, I felt some of the electric collective emotion of the moment. Possibly I felt some sense of kinship with or empathy for the Chinese friends, colleagues and students around me; maybe it was conditioned by my memories of the impoverished, recovering, different universe of the China I had first encountered in 1982, or perhaps by an appreciation of the struggles and traumas of China’s modern and, indeed, recent history. Even as the sensation passed, I was struck by the enormous yearning surrounding me to celebrate collectively, an aura that reminded me of the mass feeling produced by the U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey victory in 1980.
As I turned and headed for my office, however, my appreciation for this moment was tempered by a gnawing sense of apprehension and ambivalence. It was not just the specter of empty, unquestioning, potentially terrifyingly aggressive and close-minded sports nationalism that arose in my mind, but also thoughts about all those problematic elements of China’s past, present and future being cloaked behind celebration. This was a time for celebration, I thought, but then it will be time to get back to work.
In the end, I decided that I wanted to be far from the crowds, commotion, tourists and heat of China during the Olympics. I wish China’s Olympics well and, from the woods of New Hampshire, my daughters, now alternating their Fuwa t-shirts with other togs, and I have been rooting for athletes from the United States, China and other nations. And with every little televised glimpse of China beyond the athletic events, I feel drawn to post-Olympics Nanjing, to getting back to work on our joint American and Chinese endeavor to educate future bridge-builders in the broader Sino-American relationship and to continue the conversations which, long after these Games have ended, will be as necessary and worthy as ever.
Jan Kiely, an alumnus of the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program, is American Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. He will return to Nanjing in early September.
August 8, 2008
by Elizabeth Knup
Cycling north along the Second Ring Road on my way to meet some friends for a night out on the streets with the laobaixing of Beijing, I find an unexpected desolation. Expecting the joyous exuberance of the days and nights of the World Cup Football competition, I instead find the Second Ring Road nearly bereft of cars and lined with police. Along the access road the matronly women of the newly rejuvenated neighborhood committees, clad in brand new Olympic Volunteer T-shirts, squat on their small stools under MacDonald’s-branded beach umbrellas and chat quietly on their cell phones while keeping an eye out for trouble of any kind. At one point we few cyclists are stopped to allow a phalanx of black, tinted-window SUVs to glide onto the Second Ring Road from the Dongzhimen embassy district to speed north for the Opening Ceremony. Once released, we peddle onward, eyes not meeting, exchanging no greeting to mark this day. I console myself that this is, after all, the Second Ring Road, the main artery to the National Stadium so of course it will be tightly monitored.
After watching the first few minutes of the Opening Ceremony in a nicely air-conditioned living room, we embark on our mission to kanrenao [watch the excitement] with local Beijingers. Our first stop is the north gate of the Workers Stadium where we know there is a public screen. We arrive to find approximately 100 people seated primly on newspapers spread on the ground in front of the closed stadium gate, backs straight, staring upward at a fuzzy image of the ongoing Opening Ceremony. Police cars with lights flashing are parked nearby, idle taxis line the road with the drivers smoking, watching and waiting for a fare. It is hot and humid, the air is heavy and still and seems to reflect the atmosphere.
Undaunted in my pursuit of a joyous celebration, we ride off to the Place, a plaza that boasts the largest outdoor screen in Asia. Surely there will be enthusiasm there. Alas, we find that Coca Cola has rented it, and tickets are required.
Nearly ready to concede that the only celebration happening in Beijing is in the National Stadium and that most sane Beijingers are watching the spectacle on a flat screen TV in their air conditioned living rooms, we decide to head to Houhai to find a bar to quench our thirst. As we pass the Workers Stadium, however, we find that the crowd has grown considerably and most people are on their feet. The parade of nations has begun and it seems that excitement might be growing. We park our bikes. The crowd is mixed, young and old, foreign and Chinese. A few old men seem to have missed the recommendations on how to dress and wander bare-chested and in their pajama bottoms through the crowd. Young Chinese have painted the national flag on their cheeks, stuck flags in their hair, and seem on the verge of some kind of expression. The local convenience store down a lonely hutong is doing a bang-up business selling water.
Across the street to the north a crowd of foreigners has gathered and they cheer as each African nation enters the stadium. Suddenly about 50 citizens of Madagascar come dancing and singing across the street to the amazement of the local Beijingers. Followed by TV cameras and individual cameras they sing and dance among the Chinese crowd and finally inspire the young Chinese with painted faces to call back the chant “Zhongguo Jiayou” (“Go China”) which is then picked up by the Madagascar group and turned into “Madagascar Jiayou.” A few young men in military attire saunter over to make sure that nothing untoward is happening and, satisfied that this is all in good fun, fade back to the periphery of the crowd.
By now the parade of nations is fully underway and the nationalities of the Workers Stadium crowd become clear. France has a large contingent and gets a big cheer. Similarly, members of the crowd from Australia, the US, and the UK have come with flags and elicit cheers from all. Cheers go up also for Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, and Russia, among others. By now the entire crowd is on its feet. A young Chinese woman diligently works to clean up the old newspapers now strewn on the ground and is helped by a young man from Madagascar. A middle-aged Chinese woman collects empty water bottles for recycling. We talk to some 10-year old girls clutching their Fuwa Olympic mascots who are shy about speaking English.
Finally, the Chinese team enters the stadium and heartfelt cheers and the “Zhongguo Jiayou” chant go up. The crowd sings the national anthem, and the cheering continues. Most of the cheering comes from the young people, with a few young men particularly ardent, shouting themselves hoarse, arms raised, sweat glistening, flags waving. The young women cheer more demurely from the edges of the crowd. The older folks watch the spectacle, and join in the national anthem but largely stay away from the fray.
I am suddenly tired, hot, and thirsty, and decide to head home before the lighting of the torch. Cycling away from the Workers Stadium the streets are immediately empty once again. I glide through intersections without a care; sometimes the only sound is that of my tires on the road and the cicadas. The air remains heavy and still and the national flags that now festoon every shop in Beijing hang limply in the night.
Elizabeth Knup is Chief Representative for Pearson in China and President of Pearson Education China.
August 10, 2008
by Steven Okun
Not the “No Fun” Olympics
In the build-up to 08/08/08, there were many articles about how the Beijing Games would be the
“No Fun” Olympics. Overall, however, a festive atmosphere permeates even though this is the most secure large-scale public event I have ever witnessed. People recognize that bringing 80 world leaders together before a global audience requires extra-heightened security. Thus, even the one hour-plus wait at the Opening did not sour the mood of the crowd there. Since that event, the wait times have decreased significantly.
One of the more amusing exchanges I witnessed occurred at the security check. As part of the screening process, anyone carrying a camera into the Opening Ceremonies was asked to take a picture with it. This process was quick: everyone with a camera snapped a picture and showed the image to the security guard.
However, when my friend’s turn came, the line was held up for about 10 minutes because his camera was not digital: he snapped his picture, no image appeared, and the guard in his 20s had no idea what to do. His first reaction was to open the camera but my friend tried to explain that he couldn’t do that because it would expose the film. The guard was baffled. Only after a conference with other older guards who remembered – vaguely – the pre-digital camera days, was my friend was allowed to clear the check point.
Before the Games began, the main topics of discussion were the weather and air quality, security, and traffic controls. While still discussed, they are so to a much lesser degree. More and more, the center of conversation focuses on which tickets are available, where hotel rooms can be had at discounted prices, and leads on invitations to various dinners, receptions and parties.
The countless Beijingers involved in staging the games – the overwhelming majority of them volunteers who take tickets or point visitors in the right direction – are clearly determined to ensure that a good Olympics experience is had by all. Everyone I’ve spoken to appreciates the welcoming attitude and comments on how they are all unfailingly cheerful, polite and eager to help.
The Olympics in Beijing will not be like a Super Bowl in the United States, or a World Cup in Europe, but we shouldn’t expect that: China is not the West. But China can be fun and from all I’ve seen so far, these Olympic Games certainly are.
Steven Okun is Vice President for Public Affairs in Asia, United Parcel Service.
August 6, 2008
by John Holden
The light drizzle had ended just a few minutes earlier. I stepped off the bus to assume my position as the 84th runner of the Olympic torch on June 24 in Xining, capital of Qinghai. I had chosen Xining because I had never been there, but more importantly because the city is on the southern route of the ancient Silk Road that had linked China and the West, just as the Olympic flame is doing this year. I was greeted with smiles and cheers from the two-row deep crowds on both sides of the street, and from onlookers in the neighboring apartment buildings and shops. I smiled back and waved. This was fun; gone from my mind was the controversy surrounding the Torch Run.
In the distance the camera van approached, and then I watched as the 83rd runner received the flame and started a slow jog toward me. She was a witty and irreverent lawyer with the People’s Armed Police whom I’d gotten to know the previous day, when all 291 runners had received uniforms (mine was three sizes too small and had to be exchanged late that evening) and instructions about the relay. We had agreed on how we would do the exchange – how we would position ourselves for the lighting of my torch and when/how to shake hands.
And then I was on my way, jogging very slowly up the wide avenue, aware that I had to savor the moment. It doesn’t take long to advance 30 meters! Too soon, I reached runner #85, an official with the Qinghai Bureau of Health. To my surprise he had suggested that we embrace rather than do the more common hand shake or “high five.” I was glad to agree, even though I’m usually a reticent “hugger,” and it turned out well as you can see from this photo that appeared on the front page of the China Daily.
After I’d lit his torch one of the guards used a key to close the valve that 30 meters before had released the propane gas from a cylinder in my torch. He then removed the gas cylinder and returned the beautifully designed and fashioned object for me to keep.
When it was all over, there was quite a party atmosphere as, torches in hand, the runners proudly posed with each other for photos. As one of three foreigners I was much in demand. The smiles came easily.
I was fortunate to have had this experience, and will always treasure my Olympic torch, the associated memories of my small role in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the complex saga of China’s embrace of the world.
John Holden was president of the National Committee from 1998 to 2005, when he returned to China as chairman of the Shaklee (China), Ltd. He lives in Beijing.
May 26, 2008
by Susan Kelly
The Olympic torch relay passed through Yangzhou! You cannot imagine what a HUGE event and honor this is to all of China! We staked out a place along the street and stood waiting for more than three hours. We talked with zillions of people! College and university kids who are always willing to come right up to us…And a policeman, who was very proud that he understood some English. There were 4,000 extra policemen on duty for this event.
The ‘social environment’ along the torch route was unique! Not a single chair or stool or stroller. Everyone just stood – even little kids. No food and drink vendors; actually, no vendors of any sort. And people were unbelievably patient and orderly.
Security concerns were apparent everywhere! Busloads of soldiers preceded the torch event down the middle of the street, then more busloads of what I would call ‘national guardsmen’. Motorcycle cops, black sedans with blackened windows, 10 or 12 busloads. Police cars, more police cars. Quite a display of government control, authority, leadership.
The only ‘light’ part occurred when three ‘floats’ went by – representing sponsors of the event: Coca Cola, Lenovo, and Samsung. These had young people on them, dressed in gymnastics/cheerleader sorts of outfits, calling out slogans and waving to the crowds.
We actually knew two of the torch runners! One is a physics teacher from our school; the other the principal of the Beijing New Oriental Foreign Language School. We did not know the runner who passed us. He was surrounded by teams of other trained runners; he was friendly, waved all around, and was responsive to the adulation from the crowd.
Susan Kelly, teacher at Cloonan Middle School in Stamford, Connecticut, spent the 2007-2008 school year teaching English at Jiangdu Middle School, in Jiangdu, Jiangsu, as a participant in the National Committee’s U.S.-China Teachers Exchange Program.
August 8, 2008
by Stephen Orlins
The first hour of the opening ceremony moved and transfixed me and the 91,000 other audience members. Temporarily forgotten were the heat, pollution, and media complaints. It was simply the most spectacular performance I have seen in China in my 30 years here – or anywhere else for that matter. The spectacle surrounded us: dancers were suspended in front of us, fireworks exploded overhead, music filled the air, and Chinese culture enveloped us. It was truly magnificent.
The following two hour and twenty minute march of the 204 teams into the stadium brought us back to the reality of the 90 degree breezeless heat. But it was not without educational value: I was able to learn the names in Chinese of many countries I have barely heard of.
My personal gauge of the audience applause meter showed strong support for North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran. Even stronger support for the United States and the Hong Kong SAR and, except for China itself, the biggest ovation was for Chinese Taipei. Clearly the laobaixing are getting the message on Taiwan.
From the opening of the new U.S. Embassy compound this morning at 8:08 a.m. until leaving for the opening ceremony at 5:00 p.m., I witnessed a deserted Beijing. Pedestrians were missing, businesses were closed (even the local Pacific Coffee) and foreigners were nearly as numerous as Chinese. The lack of traffic reminded me of the Beijing of 1979, except that there were no bicycles and road closures abounded. Security forces were present at every intersection and overpass and rumors of trouble were plentiful. Friends were telling friends to stay away from the buses, and taxis became scarcer as the day went on. The good news was that trips that usually take 45 minutes only took 10.
By the end of the opening ceremony I felt that it had accomplished what the leadership intended: it showcased China’s ability to stage a world class event. The first act of China’s coming out party was a huge success that all Chinese can be proud of and celebrate.
Stephen Orlins, President of the National Committee since 2005, attended the Opening Ceremony at the invitation of the State Council.