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    Greater China
     Jan 17, 2008
Beijing, Beijing, it's a helluva town
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - For a city in the middle of zealous Summer Olympic Games preparations, a public debate over its future, set off by an academic's call to shift the national capital out of congested and parched Beijing, has been baffling.

Late 2007 saw Beijingers plunging into polemic, on the Internet and media, over the merits and demerits of living in the ever-modernizing center of the Middle Kingdom.

The list of grumbles were many. Beijing is under attack from the advancing Gobi desert. It lacks water for its swelling 17 million

population, expected to jump to 20 million in 10 years. Spurred by Olympic demand, life in the capital has become too expensive. Land and property prices have been rising faster than Beijing's skyscrapers. And the entire construction boom has made the crispy blue winter skies a thing of the past.

"Having the capital in Beijing made sense during the Ming Dynasty when China used the power of the imperial seat to fortify its northern borders against invasions," argued one netizen.

"For communist China after 1949 it was essential the capital was close to an important ally like the Soviet Union. But we are in the 21st century now and none of these apply any more. Shouldn't we move the capital somewhere else with better environment?" he asked.

But for every posting of gripe there were defending arguments, brandishing the rise of new Beijing as modern China's glory.

"History chose Beijing as China's capital and there are no rights and wrongs to be settled," read an opinion published in the weekly Southern Weekend. "But as much as old Beijing represented ancient China, modern Beijing is the perfect symbol of new China."

For young people, the scale and pace of change has been intoxicating. Gleam and glimmer define the new Beijing where once only the imperial palace's crimson colors stood out against the city's omnipresent walls of gray. Many see the capital's recent development as nothing short of rags-to-riches transformation, which has brought along the sophisticated air of an international mega city.

"Hip. Beijing these days is hip," quips Miao Li, 26, as she scours the Shin Kong Place, the capital's new luxury-brand hotspot. "There are some great places to shop and cool places to party."

Fiercely proud of their ancient civilization, Chinese people perceive the Olympics as a rare chance to demonstrate to the world they have embraced modernity. For its part, the Chinese government relishes the opportunity to shine in the international limelight and has portrayed the games as a symbolic coming-of-age party for the entire country.

But the heady mixture of pride and nationalism professed by many cannot hide a certain sense of dislocation felt by the capital residents that have witnessed the enormous transformation brought to their city by modernization.

In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games, Beijing appears to have been transformed into the world's largest construction site. By some accounts, there are currently 10,000 building projects in the capital, albeit not all of them Olympics-related.

So far, the government has poured US$40 billion into such Olympics projects as a futuristic "bird's nest" national stadium, a high-speed train to the airport along with a brand new terminal, a new underground network and hundreds of kilometers of new roads.

But some of the city's architectural novelties like the twin towers of the Chinese Central Television (CCTV), designed by Rem Koolhaas, are causing more concern than stir among Beijingers. When the precariously tilted towers were joined into one structure in December, many let out a sigh of relief.

"Call me old-fashioned, but whenever I passed by that site I always worried whether one of those towers was going to collapse," said Cui Junxia who works as a beautician in the vicinity of the new CCTV headquarters.

"Traditional architecture is better because you know it had endured a long time. But these experiments - we don't know how sound and long lasting they will be."

Architectural development is not the only side of Beijing life being subjected to experimentation.

Beijing's distinctive social habits and attitudes have also been targeted by wenming (or civility) campaigns. Etiquette inspectors have been roaming the city for months, trying to curb bad habits like littering, cutting into line, foul language and spitting in public before the city's etiquette agency claimed "partial success" in December.

"Hosting the Olympics is not only about building grand stadiums," Zheng Mojie, official with Beijing's capital ethics development office, told the China Daily.

"As tens of thousands of foreign visitors are expected to flood into the country next summer, both its positive and negative sides will be amplified. So we must change these bad local habits," she said.

An era of bad sanitation was declared over too when swaths of ramshackle houses in the heart of old Beijing were destroyed in recent years. But while the days of sharing communal lavatories with neighbors are gone, the change has entailed the erasing of historical neighborhoods with warrens of narrow crooked alleys and courtyard houses, unique to this imperial city's landscape.

The people evicted during this redevelopment process number at least 1.5 million, according to the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions.

"While many of these displacements resulted from large-scale urban redevelopment that would have occurred without the Olympic Games, the scale of displacements has more than doubled since Beijing was elected as an Olympic host city," the center said in a report last year.

The reconstruction of China's capital had begun in earnest after 1998 but accelerated in 2001 when Beijing won the bid to host the games.

By choosing to seat the center of government in Beijing, capital of past dynasties over the past 1,000 years, every urban planner in modern times has been confronted with the question of how best to deal with the ancient city. The communist leaders of China dealt with this great symbol of the country's lustrous, and backward feudal past as they knew best - radically.

(Inter Press Service)

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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Jan 14, 2008)


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