July 2008

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Securing the Olympics

Security has been a major issue and challenge at all recent Olympic Games and failures of that security (as in Atlanta in 1996) surely weigh heavily on the minds of Olympic planners. However, the Beijing Olympics have been marked not only by their incredible security preparations, but also by foreign scrutiny and suspicion because of China’s international reputation as a heavily-policed state. Here, Eric Setzekorn shares what he is seeing on the ground in Beijing.

By Eric Setzekorn

More than any state-of-the-art sports complex or amazing athletic performance, many visitors will remember the Beijing Olympics as the world’s largest security event. In an effort to squelch any sort of protest or more serious terrorist act the government has instituted strict new rules and enforced many existing but hitherto disregarded laws. Estimates of total security personnel range from 250,000 to 500,000, depending on the criteria, but visitors should be either alarmed or comforted to know their every action is monitored and scrutinized.

The epicenter for Olympic security is Tiananmen Square. Since 1989 and even more so since the Falun Gong crackdown, Tiananmen Square has boasted a comprehensive security plan based on numerous security cameras backed by scores of uniformed and plainclothes police. New checkpoints have been established at all entrances to the Square and are equipped with larger than average cameras, most likely biometric scanners, and all bags are thoroughly searched. The level of scrutiny is high–after inspecting not only my bag but a folder of articles inside, I was asked by the polite but stern officer why I carried several papers regarding Chinese politics.

Above, Security Checkpoint in Tiananmen Square

In the square itself much of the large area has been subdivided and occupied with space-filling decorations. A large area of plants and trees has been constructed in the northeastern corner between the Square and Chang’an Avenue. Large barriers block direct line of site from Mao’s Mausoleum toward the Forbidden City. While this ruins much of the stark beauty of the square it makes sense from a security and crowd control perspective.

Barriers north of Mao’s Mausoleum

Olympic Garden In Tiananmen Square

In a smart public relations move, most police and military officers patrolling the square are unarmed except for pepper spray and a taser. Long black vans parked nearby hold SWAT teams if there is any real trouble and the lack of overt weapons makes the police presence less intimidating to ordinary visitors than the AK-47-carrying soldiers that typically inhabit the Square.

Leaving the square and walking along Chang’an Avenue long rows of local university students line the road at 40-foot intervals. Given a t-shirt, fanny pack, and sun umbrella (teal for boys, purple for girls) they stand motionless unless approached to ask for directions or information. Given only a small stipend for meals and transportation, they volunteered because of a genuine desire to help the Beijing Olympics but also to practice their English.

Student volunteers along Chang’an Avenue outside Raffles Hotel

In less commercial areas, this type of duty is relegated to older residents who are given an orange and white Olympic shirt and a red armband saying they are a “public safety officer,” and who then sit in front of their buildings on low stools chatting and fanning themselves in the heat. These “officers” have no real duties to perform, schedule to maintain, or uniform to wear. For men, rolling their shirts up above their stomachs seems to be popular, as is wearing large sun hats for the women. While it does appear somewhat comical with small groups of retirees sitting every 50 feet they are probably the best monitoring system imaginable. Although given no training, having no English skills, and bringing their own cell phones to call the local patrolmen directly if there is “trouble,” they are an extremely cost effective and numerous auxiliary force. As a secondary benefit, for the price of a t-shirt, sponsored by Yanjing Beer, they are made to feel they are part of and responsible for the success of the Olympic games.

Retiree volunteers outside their apartments

Outside the second ring road, security decreases with an emphasis on regular patrols by foot and car. Police are now much more visible directing traffic at major intersections and assisting traffic wardens to clear accidents quickly. When motorcades or VIPs are on the move, small groups of heavily armed military police occupy strategic intersections in full uniform with helmet, body armor, and assault rifles. Due to stringent housing laws that were previously un-enforced, private housing areas have also increased security and tightened regulations. These rules are designed to limit a large floating population of foreigners and domestic tourists that could be hard to track during the games.

Private security checkpoint in housing area

Most housing areas have installed gates manned 24 hours a day to separate residents from any potential guests who must proceed to the local police station for a temporary residence permit. Large police sweeps of twenty to thirty officers going through housing blocks for any unauthorized visitors seem mainly to inconvenience the large floating Korean student population in the Haidian district and stops landlords from renting apartments at huge mark-ups for the month of August.

While there is clearly a need for a comprehensive and large security presence at obvious targets during the Olympics, for many visitors the true symbols of the Beijing’s Games could be the 6th and 7th Fuwas, JingJing and ChaCha (jingcha being the Chinese word for police).

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By Timothy Weston

I have a confession to make: I was moved by Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, think it’s an important novel and that it’s well worth reading. The reason I say I feel a need to “confess” as opposed to just being able to state this is because recent postings on The China Beat, as well as some of the reviews referenced in those postings, attack the book with a sharpness and thoroughgoingness that initially made me question my own taste and to think that I was politically incorrect for liking and being impressed by the novel as I read it. But after finishing Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Wolf Totem—a book that we now know is the work of Lu Jiamin, using “Jiang Rong” as a pseudonym—my conviction remains unchanged that this is indeed a major work. Reactions to the novel have varied widely, as Jeff Wasserstrom pointed out in an earlier post to this site. Here, very briefly, I’d like to add one more voice of praise, for in my opinion it would be a pity if, swayed by the negative things they have read about it here or elsewhere, China experts (or other interested readers) were to decide that reading the novel isn’t worth the effort.

Before saying more I want to make clear that I agree with many of the criticisms made of the book: it is didactic, does lack character development, and is too long. Moreover, to the extent that it advocates that Chinese adopt wolfish cunning and aggressiveness as national characteristics, it does open itself to the charge of being nationalistic, though personally I did not find this theme overly offensive. Fully mature and great literature it may not be, but courageous, imaginative, and a deserving winner of the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize I think it is. No other novel, from any country, has given me so deep an appreciation for the vitally important and interconnected roles played by all creatures and species within the natural environment, or of the fragile relationship between we human beings and the ecological setting in which we live. At a moment when awareness of our endangerment of the planet is rising to new levels, Jiang Rong has produced a profound lament about what it can mean when human beings and human societies carry on with little-to-no regard for the natural environment.

This message is of course universally relevant and highly timely. The fact that is has been articulated so passionately by a Chinese writer is remarkable, given the low level of environmental consciousness usually attributed to contemporary China. Here, then, we have a powerful Chinese contribution to the global discussion about our human-caused planetary environmental crisis. For me, this is a welcome development.

Also welcome, in my view, is Jiang Rong’s willingness to merge his tale of environmental destruction with an open discussion of Han Chinese cultural and political imperialism. In Wolf Totem disregard for other cultures (in this case nomadic Mongolian culture) goes hand in hand with disregard for the natural environment; the same unthinking mindset produces both. Having noted with sadness the scarcity of publicly expressed Chinese compassion for the feelings of Tibetans during the recent disturbances in Tibet and elsewhere, I find it refreshing to encounter Jiang Rong’s concern over Han insensitivity to minority peoples.

While Jiang Rong is critical of Han Chinese ignorance and arrogance with regard to minority cultures and ways of life within China, Wolf Totem is not a simplistic good guy versus bad guy story, nor an overly determined good ethnic group versus bad ethnic group tale. Ethnicity is not treated in an essentialist fashion in this novel. Chen Zhen, the novel’s protagonist, is a Han Chinese, as are several other important characters, and they develop a deep appreciation for the environment and the brutal and amoral ways of nature. Han Chinese are not irredeemable, in other words. Nor are Mongols portrayed as being wholly in touch with nature; among other things, in fact, the novel narrates fissures within Mongol society along generational, geographic and ideological lines. As with the Chinese, some Mongols are shown to be sensitive to the environment and some are not.

As environmental studies becomes an ever more important part of school curricula there’s a growing need for books that speak to environmental issues in creative and compelling ways. While reading Wolf Totem I kept thinking about how to use it in my teaching. Since I am a historian, I thought of pairing it with Mark Elvin’s recent monumental historical study, The Retreat of the Elephants, or with Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War Against Nature. My sense is that Jiang Rong’s literary exploration of environmental issues in China would work well with those more academic treatments.

There is of course also the question of why Wolf Totem has been so amazingly popular in China. I can imagine an entire class session devoted to that issue alone, for if, as one blurb on the cover of Goldblatt’s translation states, the novel has in fact outsold any other book in Chinese history since Mao’s little red book, that is a truly astonishing fact. What does it tell us about Chinese society today? No doubt many things, not all of them positive (other reviewers are likely right that the macho tone of the novel is at least partially responsible for its extraordinary appeal in China). Nevertheless, at this time, when the price of decades of disregard for the natural environment is becoming painfully obvious to more and more Chinese, my hunch is that a great many of the millions of Chinese readers of Wolf Totem have been attracted to the message of environmental warning that is its central theme. Along the way, of course, they are treated to an unusually self-reflective discussion of Han Chinese relations with minority peoples who belong to the Chinese nation. One can hope that in this way, too, the novel is having a positive affect on those who have been reading it.

There are a few themes we’ve been tracking lately at China Beat, including growing Chinese nationalism, middle class protest, and India-China comparisons. Here are a few stories we’ve noticed around the web this week that address some of these issues:

1. For a thoughtful take on the fenqing phenomenon, check out Evan Osnos’s recent New Yorker piece, “Angry Youth: The New Generation’s Neocon Nationalists.”

2. Financial Times ran a recent piece on the efforts to stop construction of a nuclear power station in Rushan (southeast of Beijing)–see “China Pressure Groups Learn to Tread Carefully.”

3. Earlier this week, Danwei.org ran an excerpt from the book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China by Pallavi Aiyar. The excerpt considers the differences between development in China and India.

4. In May, we ran a piece by Steve Smith on disaster rumors in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. In the weeks to follow, some Chinese began to speculate that the cute little Olympic mascots, the fuwa (the Friendlies), were actually harbingers of doom, each one predicting an Olympic year debacle. Today, Shanghaiist reports that their own creator has disowned the fuwas. Look here for the piece, along with links to spoofs on the fuwa and further explanation of their role as harbingers of the apolocalypse.

5. And, for a little lighter reading for those of you carefully packing and repacking your Beijing Olympic wardrobes, check out this Sartorialist-inspired blog of Beijing street-style, Stylites in Beijing.

Rocking Beijing

By Eric Setzekorn

Like almost every aspect of Beijing life in the past five years, the live music scene has undergone rapid but uneven development. Beijing has always prided itself onthe gritty originality of its live music compared to the dominance of cover bands in Shanghai or the saccharine Canto-pop of Hong Kong. The recent opening of new, modern venues on both sides of the city has allowed dozens of new bands and a newly affluent urban youth to establish a flourishing but still shallow live music scene.

For live music, particularly rock and hip hop music, the Olympics are bringing challenges such as new rules and regulations but could allow some bands to develop a global fan base which remains a central difficulty for Chinese groups. A less immediate and more difficult issue will be resolving the internal contradictions between Chinese rock and its relation to Chinese society. The elephant in the room of any discussion of China’s music scene is how to rectify the anti-authoritarian values which infuse rock music and even more so punk and hip-hop with the boundaries of the Chinese political system. At present the young, often highly nationalistic youth seem to be pulling in the same direction as the government, which comes as a shock to many foreign visitors and seems to betray the core anti-establishment values of rock, punk and hip-hop. However, the post-1989 cultural détente in which musicians stayed away from politics may be eroding.

Beijing has slowly struggled to rebuild its music scene after rock music had been identified by the government as a “bad element” following the events of 1989. The introduction of punk and alternative rock sounds from groups like Nirvana and Sonic Youth in the 1990s helped influence new groups like the all-girl band Hang on the Box, which was the first Chinese band on the cover of Newsweek Asia, and whose music marked a sharp change from the Bruce Springsteen-esque Cui Jian types of the 1980s.

However, the still small underground rock scene suffered from a lack of funding and limited exposure that kept most groups at a non-professional level. It has only been in the past few years that bands have been able to perform in purpose-built, high quality venues in front of large crowds. The opening of D-22 in 2005 by American professor Michael Pettis was a turning point and helped revitalized the Haidian university district’s languishing nightlife and live music scene. Across town in business-oriented Chaoyang, several venues with a capacity of up to 2,000 opened their doors to both local and foreign groups.

One of the most interesting clubs is the centrally located “Mao Live House” near the Bell and Drum tower, north of the Forbidden City. A converted movie theater, it has space for up to 400 and, with backing by the Japanese “Bad News” record label, installed high quality lighting and sound equipment–surely a first for Beijing. Its snarky logo features only the hairline of Mao circa 1970 in black set against a white backdrop. Mao also shows various local underground films during set breaks. A recent five-minute film showcased a young film student doing tai-chi while standing on an on-ramp to the second ring road. Throughout the five minutes the incredibly brave/foolish filmmaker was not questioned or stopped by any passerby or even the police but his attached microphone recorded a constant stream of profanities from drivers.

It would be easy to assume that venues like “Mao” possess and cultivate the anti-establishment ethos that permeates many rock, punk or hip-hop clubs in the U.S. or Europe, but the non-political tone of the majority of musicians and fans limits many of the protest aspects of rock music. The majority of live music fans are under thirty, urban, middle class, often have a university education, and have benefited greatly under the current political system. For a variety of reasons–strong economic growth, a tightly controlled education system, and no memory of 1989–the younger generation is generally optimistic and supportive of current policies, which means bands that inject politics into their music risk isolating themselves. In addition, some Chinese musicians are highly sensitive to criticism they are “acting like foreigners” by playing rock or punk music. At a recent show at D-22, a lead singer prefaced his set by appealing to the audience to remember that even though he wore western style clothing and his band used western style guitars and drums they remained wholly Chinese in spirit.

More than any other event, the now infamous Bjork concert in Shanghai on March 4th, where the Icelandic singer closed her song “Declare Independence” by shouting “Tibet,” has deeply affected Beijing’s music scene prior to the Olympic games. For fear of other political disturbances by foreign acts, the always-cautious Beijing city government postponed until October the widely anticipated annual Midi rock music festival that normally draws over 10,000 rock fans.

There is also a fear of violence by Chinese fans directed towards any band that might make a political statement about Tibet or Darfur. Even without provocation, Chinese fans can be highly temperamental; in 2003 and 2005, nationalistic young Chinese pelted Japanese bands with beer bottles during the music festival. The Tibet protests this spring have also encouraged nationalistic tendencies and a more belligerent attitude among many young Chinese, musicians included. In one of the small CD stores catering to underground and local rock groups, one of the most prominent DVDs is a brutally graphic account of the Lhasa riots showing charred bodies and graphic violence captured by security cameras. The video’s narration continuously denounces the rioters as traitors who serve the Dalai Lama and his foreign sponsors and stresses the need for firm action to regain control. Adjacent to this grisly and apparently popular documentary, shop workers sat on the floor with guitars strumming along to a Nirvana Unplugged CD.

However, not all musicians are in step with the party line and many do succeed in hiding political and social criticisms in their lyrics. The wildly popular Carsick Cars song “Zhongnanhai” has a chorus of,

“Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, if you smoke just smoke Zhongnanhai
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, can’t live without Zhongnanhai,
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai, who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?”

The subtly of the double meaning (Zhongnanhai is both a brand of cheap cigarettes and the senior government housing area adjacent the Forbidden City) no doubt overshoots many listeners, but vagueness is necessary when every recorded lyric must be vetted by the Ministry of Culture. In a recent Time Magazine article that listed Beijing band PK14 as one of its five bands to watch in 2008, lead singer Yang Haisong listed American protest singers Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan as his inspirations. While not every band will go to the extreme of the hip-hop group Pan-Gu, which is currently in exile in Sweden due to their anti-party message, the growing cross-pollination of foreign and Chinese bands could possibly increase the desire for musicians to become more vocal social critics.

To eliminate the possibility of disruptions during the Olympic Games, the Ministry of Culture has issued guidelines stating that acts that “undermine national unity, endanger state security, stir up ethnic hatred, violate religious policy and ethnic customs, publicize pornography and superstition will be barred,” with offenders likely being blacklisted but not arrested. Like many other socially undesirable facilities such as Beijing’s infamous Maggie’s bar, police have mostly used indirect tactics to halt activity. At present D-22 is closed due to “licensing issues” but hopes to re-open before the games. Other clubs have had problems getting visas for foreign groups to enter China. While the authorities will likely get their wish and eliminate any potential trouble spots during the games, the growth of live music in Beijing coupled with a more outspoken artistic community could be a potential source of future conflict and friction.

Eric Setzekorn is a graduate student at UC Irvine specializing in military history and is currently finishing an exchange semester with the Beijing University history department.

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Beijing’s New Flame

Currently the London correspondent for NPR, Rob Gifford also covered China for six years and his recently published China Road continues to receive positive reviews. Here, Gifford has allowed China Beat to reprint a piece reflecting on Beijing’s renewed building boom that originally appeared in Condé Nast Traveler.

By Rob Gifford

The essence of Beijing has always been found in its buildings. The city has no major river, no coastline. There are some hills to the west and the north, with the Great Wall stretched across them, but there is none of the geographic razzle-dazzle that created towns like Hong Kong or San Francisco or Sydney or Istanbul. As the historian Arnold Toynbee noted when he visited in the 1930s, Beijing as a city owes little to nature and everything to art.

The art of which Toynbee wrote was contained within the ancient walls of the Forbidden City, where the emperor resided at the heart of old Beijing. But the art was also the buildings themselves: beautiful, angular structures that suffused the dusty soil beneath them with an imperial significance, sanctifying an otherwise unremarkable spot on the North China Plain.

The man responsible for creating Beijing was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, known as Yongle. On his orders, between 1405 and 1421 thousands of workers constructed a new city, a city that would be the new capital not just of China but of the world, and indeed the universe. In traditional thinking, all under heaven belonged to Yongle, and all the world revolved around his domain, a belief made explicit by the country’s name for itself: Zhong Guo, the Middle Kingdom.

There was a reason for the Chinese to believe this, too. At the time, China, though a little past its heyday, was still the world’s economic superpower. With no competitors (Europe had yet to rise), China was confident of its moral and financial superiority, and Yongle’s capital was appropriately grand, fit for the throne of the Son of Heaven. Built according to ancient rules of geomancy and surrounded by suffocating layers of walls, its design reflected the cosmic symmetry that the emperor sought to keep in balance through his just and harmonious rule.

But such cosmic (and terrestrial) equilibrium is hard to maintain indefinitely. After a final, fatal flowering under the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century, China fell into a death spiral of humiliation and semi-colonization. By the late nineteenth century, Western incursions had transformed it from Alpha Male Middle Kingdom to Sick Man of Asia, struggling on the periphery of the modern world.

Now, though, the wheel is once again turning.

When China’s current ruler, President Hu Jintao, declares the Games of the XXIX Olympiad open in August 2008, he will be looking out upon a city that, like the entire country, bears little resemblance to the one Yongle knew. The stadium where he will be standing—modern Beijing’s own imperial palace—is one of the most talked-about buildings in Asia. Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have dubbed their creation the Bird’s Nest, an allusion to the strands of steel that weave around its frame, but it looks more like a shiny silver spaceship that has landed amid the browns and grays of northern Beijing. Certainly its design is alien to any Chinese architectural tradition. But that’s the point: Beijing is being rebuilt along Western lines—not weighed down with the heavy symbolism of Chinese tradition but exploding with the sparks of Western postmodernism. Now it is the Bird’s Nest that is suffusing the dusty soil, this time with a twenty-first-century significance.

Adjacent to the Bird’s Nest is another example of this new aesthetic—an angular, rectangular structure whose exterior is a honeycomb of blue bubbles. Known as the Water Cube and designed by the Australian firm PTW Architects, it will be the stage for the Olympic swimming and diving events. Farther south, in the Central Business District—not far from Tiananmen Square—looms another monument to the changed Chinese psyche: the new headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV). Dutch maestro Rem Koolhaas’s $600 million project has twisted twin towers that seem to leap from the earth, embracing each other in midair. Beside the square itself is the titanium egg that is the National Theater, its smooth lines clashing with the ancient Greece-meets-Soviet Union angles and pillars of Tiananmen. There, eyed warily by the twenty-five-foot portrait of Chairman Mao, a forty-three-foot-high clock counts down the minutes to the Opening Ceremony on August 8.

These new architectural masterpieces are testaments to the rule-flouting individualism that is changing China’s cities, symbols of the break the country has made with its past, and celebrations of the country’s brave new post-Mao world. They speak of the psychological transformation, not to mention the confusion, in the Chinese mind. And they speak of the eagerness of the Chinese people to leap into a postmodern world, even as huge parts of the country are only just learning what it means to be modern. Nowhere is the metamorphosis more evident than in Beijing, a city of fourteen million that has changed more in fifteen years than it did in the previous five hundred. The capital is still discovering its new identity, and in its quest, walls have become windows as a vertical city rises from the carcass of the old horizontal one.

This rebirth has come at a price. You can still visit the heart of Yongle’s spectacular Forbidden City, with its maze of rich red walls and its yellow roof tiles heavy with history, but much of the rest of the city has been destroyed. Many of Beijing’s ancient hutongs, or alleyways, some of which date to the fourteenth century, have been demolished, and their sense of community has died with them. The sounds and smells of old Beijing have disappeared. Traditional courtyard houses have been knocked down to make way for unremarkable apartment buildings and office blocks. The cosmic balance has been lost, replaced by a capitalist iconoclasm that has proved as destructive as Communist iconoclasm was in its day. Many people have complained about the destruction of Beijing’s heritage, but their complaints have run up against one of Beijing’s few remaining walls: the wall of Communist party power.

Who knows if that wall, too, will crumble? For now, though, this and many other questions about the future have been put on hold, suspended in time until after the Olympics. The shiny ziggurats of Beijing issue a welcome as outsiders—both Chinese and foreign—hasten to observe and participate in the transformation. The glass and metal, the curved edges and winking windows, all whisper of something more than just the gentle shock of a new architectural order. They proclaim a new cosmic order: that China is open, that it is looking forward and outward as never before. And they declare that Beijing—the imperial city, the capital city, and now the Olympic city—has once again become the center of the world.

Photo by Matt Merkel-Hess

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