My First Encounter with the Dark Beauty of Beijing; (1) National Pride: The Chinese See the Games as Restoring Their Greatness (2) Forbidden City: Journalists Have Not Yet Been Let into the Bird's Nest Stadium

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

My First Encounter with the Dark Beauty of Beijing; (1) National Pride: The Chinese See the Games as Restoring Their Greatness (2) Forbidden City: Journalists Have Not Yet Been Let into the Bird's Nest Stadium


Byline: Andrew Gilligan

THE GOVERNMENT and people of China are hoping that the Beijing Olympics will prove to the world what they have achieved. As the hours are counted down to the opening ceremony, I cannot help wondering whether they may be disappointed.

On one level, Beijing 2008's sheer, blistering achievement is indeed extraordinary.

The Olympic Green takes almost an hour to cross on foot, and every corner holds a new sporting crown jewel, each the biggest, most expensive and most spectacular of its kind there has ever been and probably ever will be.

At night, the National Stadium, the Bird's Nest, is more random and more beautiful than any mere camera lens can show, its outer tendrils waving in white against a blood-red interior. The tortoise-shell of the aquatic centre, with its seven different colours, is another building that succeeds in making something large and hard into something that is soft and subtle and permeable.

Last night, tantalising music was coming from inside the Nest, as the organisers went through yet another "final rehearsal" for tomorrow's heavily embargoed opening. In the media centre, the only building we have yet been allowed inside, nearly a thousand work-desks stretch away into the distance.

For the journalists alone, there is a network of hundreds of buses, which spend their time shuttling, mostly empty, between the site and any conceivable hotel or attraction. Thousands of eager, smiling volunteers at all key points and every 10 metres in between ensure that no one of my acquaintance has yet had to open a door.

Yet these jewels are set in a rather fouler clasp. On the morning I flew in, the pollution was so thick that I couldn't see the ground until the plane actually hit it.

The Olympic buildings may be spectacular but during the day it is sometimes difficult to spot them through the euphemistically-phrased Beijing "mist".

We are staying near the stadium, Beijing's equivalent of Canning Town.

But much of the rest of the city looks like Canning Town, too, having been systematically rebuilt in the past 15 years to consist largely of dual carriageways and flyovers lined with concrete highrises.

The characterful old "hutongs", the low-rise alleyways where the Chinese used to live, are being obliterated. The sky is the colour of an unwashed bedsheet.

In four days, the sun has been able to break through the haze for only a single afternoon.

AND beneath the very need, almost desperation, to impress it is possible to sense a real and terrible anxiety. The very grandness of the Olympic buildings, the general extravagance of provision, betrays a deep insecurity as much as national confidence. To an extent simply not understood in the West, China regards itself as having been beset by humiliation at the hands of foreigners, who, the Communist Party teaches, reduced it to ruin and penury for a century until Mao stepped forward in the 1940s to begin the restoration of national greatness.

Hosting the most perfect Olympics ever is intended as a key stage in that restoration and thus, far more even than in any other Games, the Chinese are desperate for the next two weeks to be a triumph.

"Embarrassment during the Games could go a long way to reactivating China's old sense of victimisation at the hands of the developed, outside world," says Orville Schell, director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. Yet the problem with Olympics is that things can, and often do, go wrong.

And even if everything does run exactly according to China's plan, will that plan, in fact, impress us? In terms of the International Olympic Committee wish-list, Beijing, with its huge numbers of glossy new venues and highly-controlled atmosphere, gets 10 out of 10. Dictatorships and the IOC make good partners. One-and-a-half million people were ejected from their homes to build the iconic venues, with little nonsense about human rights or compensation. …

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