View from the Wall

Are We Ready?

A View from Beijing before the Olympics


For the one-year countdown to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, two musicians from Hong Kong contributed a song entitled "We Are Ready." The three words sound like a short, yet powerful endorsement, both official and popular, of the investment and involvement in the Games from all over the country. Indeed, as one looks back over ancient Chinese civilization, this is an event of the millennium. It might be utterly redundant for me, a college professor in Beijing, to turn the three words into a question: Are we ready? Well, I would like to try to extract layers of readiness before the Games. I hope there is no harm in coming up with at least three different answers: (1) Yes, it seems so, (2) Yes, of course! (3) Maybe—so what?

Yes, it seems so.

In terms of the infrastructure, the hardware, we are almost done. The computer-generated images have become real steel and stone. Now we have the fascinating Bird's Nest, the new national stadium with an all-metal superstructure which does take the shape of a bird nest. Right next to the Nest, there is the foaming, swelling, yet square-shaped national swimming center named the Water Cube. Both the Nest and the Cube are supposed to witness many of the most exciting moments during the Beijing Olympics, including the opening and closing ceremonies.

Situated right beside the main expressway I frequently use, both of these structures with all their magnificent grandeur seem surreal or, at least, futuristic to me. The image reminds me of a taxi driver's comment in 1993, when China failed in her first bid for the 2000 Sydney Games, that if Beijing won, the city would be modernized by a further fifty years. We have dreamed of a modernized lifestyle ever since our late Premiere Zhou Enlai proposed the "four modernizations" as early as the 1970s. For the people of Beijing, or even the whole of China, a modernized life is a better life. Since an Olympic Games can bring us modernization, which can translate into a better life, we are all for it.

In fact, we have been enjoying some of the modernizations brought about by the year 2008. A new airport terminal, the largest architecturally ever built in the world, opened in February. Four new subway routes, including one from the new airport terminal, are now ready to handle the massive movement of people to and from the core area of the Games. Modeled after the construction and management of the Hong Kong subway, we are exempted (maybe only temporarily) from the mileage ticketing used in Hong Kong. This means we only have to pay a flat rate of two yuan (about 14 cents) for any number of transfers or any travel distance via the six underground lines currently available. In addition, adults pay 40 cents and students 20 cents of the regular rate of 100 cents per bus ride. The balance is subsidized by the municipal government. Hopefully, this means more public transportation and less traffic jams during the Games.

We always need better air quality. Even less traffic is desirable. The same government that introduced private cars to boost the local GDP now asks drivers to use other means of transportation "at least one day per month." More stringent measures will be taken starting July 20, cutting half the cars on the road by permitting odd or even numbered license plates on the road only on corresponding odd and even days of the month.

The number of cars can be smaller, yet the number of people on the road remains huge: several million ride on buses and subwayseach day. For the sake of the Olympics, most Beijing and other long-term residents here are forming a new habit almost overnight: queuing. We queue along the two sides of the door of a subway car; we queue for the "front door in, back door out" buses; we queue on the right side of the escalator steps, and so on. These civilized behaviors are loosely observed with the help of a uniformed team of "Civilizing Supervisors," who always shout loudly to remind people to queue, to be polite. Moreover, English-speaking volunteers will be placed in major bus and subway transit stations around the city to assist friends from all over the world.

Last but not least, smokers will have a hard time. Rumor has it that smoking will be banned in public places, both indoors and outdoors, as a matter of saving face, especially. For this national and international occasion, Chinese smokers will have to endure the torture of foregoing their addictions, at least for a time. Yet, the lucrative tobacco industry will not allow this ban to go permanent.

So, it seems that we are ready for the Olympics in terms of hardware and people's physical involvement. How about the ideas, the vibes in our minds? Are we ready?

Yes, of course!

In China, minds are largely shaped by the media. On the most powerful media of our time, TV, we have daily countdowns to the Games. The welding of the last few pieces of the Bird's Nest was broadcast live. The Olympic torch relay is covered daily, even hourly. Featured interviews of Olympic related figures are available right before the peak viewing hour. More ubiquitous is the "mobile" TV in subway cabs, public places and even people's palms. (We have developed our own 3G mobile telephone now.) In one of the most frequently used video flashes, the holy hymn of Emmanuel leads in, only to be followed by speech fragments from the former Chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch: " was awarded to the city of Beijing!"

The repeated theme is an "Olympic Dream." It is the dream of a nation rising up, being stronger and never to be looked down upon. Are we talking about nationalistic, patriotic passion here? Nothing but! Yet, at the same time, people are more than ready to give their time to a new fashion: learning English. To be more ready for the Olympics, English is almost worshipped in much the same way people did with Chairman Mao's words forty years ago. Everyone is learning it, from the three year old to the ninety year old. Police officers, taxi drivers, bus conductors, door keepersall have their own specifically developed sets of English for Special Purposes. The most remarkable exposure, again, is on TV. An English phrase a day, Olympic-related, is taught by celebrities from all walks of life: pop stars, national heroes, Olympic medalists, business achievers and even a seventy year old guru of Peking opera.

Among all people involved in this getting-ready-for-the-Olympics, young college students in Beijing are the most prominent. Despite the frustrating registration process and rigid selection procedure, young volunteers are never tired of seeking opportunities to contribute to the Games. For most of them, this is the first, and could be the only, event in their college years suitable for their hormonal level and creative energy. They feel lucky and excited to be experiencing these historical moments and to be representing Beijing and China. My worry is that these kids may never find their schoolwork as exciting, which is true. This means they may be more reluctant to do what they need to do.

For middle-aged citizens, the Beijing Olympics inject a convenient purpose into life. Almost all the "Civilizing Supervisors" are middle-aged, under-employed workers. Frequent media exposure for their community service makes them feel proud again after years of a discounted life.

For the elderly retirees, any popular sport will serve as a socializing event. To contribute to the Olympics is such a common cause that all of them are more than happy to go for it.

After all, the aged generation used to have an eventful life. The younger generations long for an eventful life. All are satisfied by a sense of common purpose in contributing to the Beijing Olympics. All, deep in their minds, need to be sustained by something external, something grand, holy and meaningful.

Okay, why bother to ask again the same question of whether we are ready for the Games? Don't we have two satisfying answers above? I'm not satisfied simply because the above answers are too satisfying. The next part is my own grain of salt. Are we ready?

Maybe—so what?

Maybe we will achieve the goal of making these Olympic Games the most successful ones ever, but that success does not necessarily translate into practical value for ordinary citizens in Beijing. Maybe we can create more legends during the Games, but more concern should be given to the legend-makers' quality of life as a whole. Maybe we can win more recognition in the world, but what are we recognized as?

My life has not been uneventful, and I am a little sick of external incentives and motivations. More often than not, we do something not for our own, long-term interest, but to gain some quick fame and pride for our parents and families. We are eager to be recognized by our peers, who may not really accept us as their peers. We are in constant fear of being looked down upon, which is a feeling of the collective memories of the past two hundred years. We are asked by our great leader to be creative, yet we never tried or dared to try to make a difference.

Am I off track here? I think not. I am simply reframing the question of whether we are ready for the Olympics into something like: Are we ready to find our own identity? Are we ready to develop our own point of view? Are we ready to be modernized, physically, mentally, socially and culturally?

I do hope the Beijing Olympics of 2008 is the Great Exhibition 1851, and the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube are its Crystal Palace. The Olympic Dream of all Chinese could be the dream of a newly industrialized nation really taking off. My own dream of the Olympics is the dream of equal opportunity, individual identity, fair play and harmony in diversity.

Image credit: Beijing 2008 Equestrian: Jumping by Justin Gaurav Murgai, on Flickr

Jonathan Li

Jonathan Li is a university professor in Beijing. View Full Bio