If you’re not a fan of sports you can join me in celebrating the end of another Olympic Games and the media frenzy which surrounded it. All the reports and articles, which had originally interested me eventually began to saturate our news to the point where anything related to China’s changing society bored me senseless, simply because I thought I had heard it all before.
It was not until this summer, when I stepped out of the world’s biggest airport terminal into the thick, stifling Beijing air, that I realised, for all those articles, I had no real idea about what that change actually meant. While I was there, it concerned me how quickly everything seemed to be changing. Was China heading in the right direction as it desperately tried to impress everyone, particularly the West? Could all their efforts have been to their detriment? As our plane landed I asked the woman next to me if that was fog I could see outside. ‘Oh no, no,’ she replied, ‘that’s just the air.’
As I walked through the streets of Beijing this June, I found myself looking at a city that had been unmistakably gripped by the drive to modernise and to ‘clean up’ in time for the Olympics. Street vendors had been banned in part to make the streets look more presentable but also so that no naïve foreigners got food poisoning. The friend I was visiting told me how he was missing the once commonplace ‘Jian Bing’ vendor. Jian Bing are breakfast pancakes made with vegetables, egg and hot sauce, and they were once eaten by many Beijingers on their way to work in the morning. Vendors risked being fined if they started selling them, and the people who used to buy their pancakes for breakfast were being forced to pay more by going to the nearby restaurants. We agreed that it all just detracted from the ‘real’ experience of Beijing, even if it did remove some minor risks.
It wasn’t just the food that government officials controlled. While I was there, they were also in charge of the weather. I had arrived in a city that, I had been informed, had daily weather patterns operating ‘like clockwork’ to dissipate pollution before the Games and, without fail, every seven o’clock in the evening there would be the most torrential downpour. The cause of those predictable weather patterns was the ‘Beijing Weather Modification Office’ which, for the past few decades, has been honing its skills in controlling where and when it rains. By firing rockets and flying planes loaded with chemicals, Weather Modification teams have for some time now been able to make the rain fall on crops and clear bad weather before public holidays by ‘seeding’ the clouds with compounds that stimulate rainfall. It was a given that as we went out in the evenings we could expect to be rained upon, and rained upon we were as we jumped over puddles, swearing loudly. ‘F***ing Lonely Planet said Beijing was a dry city!’
But it wasn’t all unhappy news; one experience stands out in my mind during those two weeks when we took a trip to Hong Kong by rail. During the return journey I was interviewed on the topic of China’s burgeoning industry and the effect the Games were having on the country as a whole. The interviewers, however, were ten-year-old schoolchildren and seemed to enjoy grinning while they asked their questions. They asked me a slew of them: ‘Do you like China?…What do you think of China’s growth?…What do you think of the Olympics?’ In the background, their teacher smiled encouragement as he took photos of us all with an enormous camera. I told them I liked China and that I wished I could be there to see the Games, but when they left I wondered if their excitement could be just as commonplace as I had read about.
With the 2008 Games a thing of the past, I hope that China will take stock of what it has done to itself to prepare for the Olympics and really question whether it is happy with the changes it has hurriedly made. With a bit of luck they won’t be irreversible, and it is a small hope of mine that the cheerful optimism I had seen on that train won’t fade and that, maybe some day, those pancakes will return to the streets of Beijing.