August 19, 2008

Red China

I've put off writing this post for a while, because I was afraid of sounding parochial and ignorant. I've often criticized writers who parachute into a city and then make pronouncements, as if they're the first ones to discover or notice things.

But I've been thinking about Beijing as a concept, and what it seems to be rather than what I thought it would be. Ultimately, I guess I expected North Korea and came up just short of, well, I don't know. Beijing has put on a remarkable face for these Games. I had heard that they were careful to "hide" undesirable things .... slums, homeless people, beggars. And in the photo above, you might be able to see that that big Beijing 2008 sign is hiding a run-down building.

Things are neat and clean here, but there's the slightest hint that all is not as it seems. As if Beijing were expecting company in a hurry, so don't look under the rug or behind the sofa. (And don't look under the overpasses, either) There's a newness to the cleanness.

I expected a more obvious totalitarianism but it seems more like what Gorbachev was talking about when he was pushing for "socialism with a human face." Friendly faces, warm and inviting people. The soldiers are relatively plentiful, but most appear to be unarmed. I'm certain that some of the volunteers are, in fact, soldiers or other government workers. But I have seen more guns and more police presence on beaches and roadsides the world over, not to mention around the tourist spots in Paris, where the soldiers tote their machine guns and wear fatigues at the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse.

People here seem happy. Nobody looks around furtively. I don't get the sense I'm being spied on (as an unknown colleague described on a sports blog I frequent) or followed. Yet I don't doubt it has happened. When I was trying to take dumpling pictures at the hotel the other day, one of the "chefs" was quite agitated. When he realized I was only photographing food, he backed off.

My internet access is unfettered -- and yes, I realize this is quite new, and perhaps will end as soon as the Olympics do. I have state-run television, but so does most of Europe, not to mention Britain. The buildings are not built in that depressingly drab Eastern-bloc style, as so many of those in newer Prague are.

I suppose my point is that I had certain expectations, and what I'm seeing doesn't match up. I'd like to see more of Beijing. Might even like to come back some time, as a tourist. Visit Shanghai, which I understand is fabulous. But one thing is sure, because of its government or in spite of it, China is barreling fast toward the First World.

*And then there's this: Too Frail and Old to Re-educate? Not in China

No comments: