Ten years ago I had the privilege of being in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games. I had been in the city since it had been announced as the host, and thus had been able to watch it get ready. There were stadiums to construct; roads to build; subway lines to put in. The city transformed itself before our eyes. As you can imagine, I did a lot of blogging that month. Should you be interested in my Olympic adventures, you can read about them here, on my personal blog. I just went back and read them all and found myself chuckling at the memories.
To rekindle your memories, here’s a great highlight reel of the opening ceremonies.
To be sure, the Games were impressive and the city underwent some serious modernization, but what else did the Games leave behind? What about the hopes that the Olympic Games would bring about fundamental and lasting change in China?
This week a number of outlets have published some interesting retrospectives on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In a post titled “We’re a Long Way from 2008,” China File asked six China watchers to give their thoughts on how to evaluate the performance and legacy of the Bejiing Olympics. Most focus on what they see as China using the “face” it received to become more authoritarian instead of more open. Here’s a sampling of the responses:
It wasn’t only the symbolic victory of the Olympics that created the more confident and assertive Chinese leadership we’ve seen on the international stage over the past 10 years, but those two weeks in August almost certainly confirmed to the C.C.P. that the time had come for China to step up. In the face of all that could have gone wrong, the country’s leaders had ensured that everything went right. China was ready to play a bigger role in the world. (Maura Cunningham)
Since then, the trend has been retrogression. Rather than becoming a genuinely global and cosmopolitan world capital, Beijing is instead being transformed into a showpiece of state power. Small shops, galleries, and businesses opened by entrepreneurs from across China and around the world shuttered. NGOs and community organizations threatened and disrupted. What many consider cosmopolitanism, the Party sees as decadence and disloyalty. (Jeremiah Jenne)
Beijing, of course, had a rather different premise: that if the world went along with its Games, abuses and all, it would be another sign that China could reasonably expect the world would overlook its torture, arbitrary detention, or horrific abuses of peaceful activists beyond the Olympic period. And that is what has happened. (Sophie Richardson)
China has stepped up to deliver on many global responsibilities, both fiscal and environmental, and its people have every right to be proud of their nation’s strength, in the same way that Americans are. But before we accept China’s ascension to the big dogs’ table, we must not forget the broken promises of a decade ago that have created a nation which is muscled, but further away from the truer Olympian ideals of openness and fellow feeling. (Alec Ash)
The Guardian posted a collection of photos of various abandoned Olympic venues, under the title of “Beijing’s Crumbling Olympic Legacy – in Pictures.” There is something very forlorn about the photos.
At ChinaSource, we had not yet joined the digital age in 2008, so there are no old blog posts to peruse. We were, however, producing the ChinaSource Quarterly (then called the ChinaSource Journal). In the summer of that year, we published a Quarterly on the topic of the Olympics. You can read all the articles here, but I’d like to highlight the article “Are We Ready? A View from Beijing before the Olympics,” written by a Chinese professor, who shares his hopes about the practical difference the games might make for the lives of ordinary people:
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.
Lots to think about on this tenth anniversary of the Olympics.
And don’t forget, the city will get to do a repeat performance when it hosts the 2022 Olympic Winter Games (never mind that it rarely snows in Beijing!)
Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
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