Sun, August 24, 2008

Both sides of Beijing was on display

By

BEIJING - Chen Donghai takes a break from cleaning up after the last few times foreigners came here to visit.

It was 1860 and 1900, and marauding troops pretty much looted and ruined the place for the Chinese people.

This time was different, says the proud farmer turned handyman at Beijing's Yuanmingyuan Park - the "Versailles of the East" under five emperors, and now a place where mostly Chinese tourists walk around, enjoying the lotus flowers and using giant leaves as sun bonnets.

Having welcomed the world this time, Chen explains - eating noodles near a string of rundown worker huts, hidden from sight, behind the park's lush bamboo greenery - both Olympic visitors and China finally got to know each other a whole lot better.

Boy, Chen sure doesn't get out much.

Depending on which newspaper you read - and in which country you read it - the Beijing Olympics where either the world's best ever, thanks largely to the work of the ordinary person here, or it was a lavish publicity stunt to prop-up and mask an oppressive Communist government.

"From Smog to Protests, China's a Winner," raved the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday.

"Beijing's Bad Faith Olympics," counter-punched an editorial in the New York Times.

It was either a celebration of sport over political agenda, or wait, was it the other way around?

In fact, we all know it was both.

China - the government and its people - did just what they had long dreamed of doing.

They made it to the end of the Games, basking in cheers and glory.

They broke the Chinese vault in their gold medal count - 24 to America's 20 and Russia's tiny 12. Pouring endless amounts of money into their athletic preparations, they managed what the old Soviet Union once did - create a vast legion of first-place super-athletes.

But unlike the robots which came out from behind the Old Iron Curtain, the Chinese won while showing a high-def happy face to the biggest Olympics audience ever. No one really minded when they won again and again. This is their town, their time.

We may not be able to pronounce their names any better, but they sure tried their best to speak our language.

They, and good-fortune in weather patterns, kept the skies clear of pollution and a cop on every corner helped deter - other than a random attack on a pair of American tourists and their guide - any acts of violence to their visitors.

Their athletes cried and were lovable in victory. And, come on, so what if one or two were slightly under age?

The Chinese adopted and cheered almost as loudly for heroes from far-flung lands, mostly American national treasures like Kobe Bryant and Michael Phelps, but Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt as well.

And they were, as individual hosts, the kind of people we wish we could be but know we will never be because people piss us off a lot more in North America.

They proved that what ever the west can do, they can do just as well and with more cute cartoon characters and camera angles.

And the people pulled it off, even in the face of their Chinese government leaders still behaving badly.

Chinese officials offered up, under conditions agreed to when they were awarded the Olympics, three protest parks, but then didn't approve any application and, in fact, used the sign up sheets as a way to pin-point malcontents. They arrested old ladies, who wanted to speak up about their land being taken for the sake of redevelopment, and sentenced them to "re-education through labour".

They wouldn't allow the Chinese press to talk about ethnic violence or fully cover the debate over Tibet. Even coverage of questionable water was out of the question.

As the final days of the Games went on, leaders spitefully decided to jail foreign protesters for 10 days, rather than simply shipping them out on the first plane home.

They told a little girl she was wasn't pretty enough to be seen singing during the Olympic opener. How mean is that?

"It pocketed...gains without offering any concessions in return," wrote the New York Times. "When it increased repression - rather than loosening up - a supine International Olympic Committee barely offered a protest.

"The medal count and DVD sales cannot be the last word on the Beijing Games."

But there were always two Olympics going on here at one time, as is always the case in the modern Games.

There was the people's Games and the political one.

And most viewers, if not the press and the protesters, understood that clearly.

When you talk to the people here, they don't celebrate a victory for their leaders, though they certainly reap the rewards. They talk about a pride in China and sense of honour among themselves.

While the West, and those muzzled voices of opposition here, may have wished the Olympics would have suddenly let freedom reign, it was never going to happen overnight. Some critics would likely have been upset if there wasn't proof of oppression.

The people here want a moment from you to bask in the glory of something that went right, and not wrong.

The first time handyman Chen saw a foreigner was 1983 in Tiananmen Square.

He was in the Chinese army then.

The father of three - he ignored the one-child, one family policy to finally get a boy - was excited by the new arrivals.

He's never traveled outside of China, but expects his educated children will.

"I want more foreigners to come...I want the world at peace," he says, putting down his metal bowl among the spent garlic cloves, which litter the ground. "China is becoming more international, and that's good."

Being isolated is not so good, he says in an area of the Yuanmingyuan Park visitors seldom find themselves in.

As a migrant worker - many were moved out of Beijing before the Games - he tends to the Qing Dynasty ruins, to earn extra money to help with his own legacy. He lives in one of the old, brick and stone huts, just behind him now.

But when I ask him which one, he pleads with the Chinese translator not to tell me.

"He worries you'll see it's shabby, and won't be impressed," she explains.

He doesn't want to lose face in front of a visitor.

He wants this foreigner to leave with nothing but praise for the hard work he's doing and the life he's leading.

That was always the risk in covering these Games - trying to tell the stories of two different Games, without feeling as if you weren't somehow just trying to ruin it for the ordinary person here.


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