Coming to Beijing and living the Olympic Games in this city was supposed to become the materialising of a child’s broken dream. Forty years later, my personal experience relived the myth of a harmonious spirituality for the games; I saw the new reality that broke down into a number of critical ideas that, I must admit, were seeped in the total mistrust of its organisers, the International Olympic Committee, the government of the People’s Republic of China and the enterprises that supported them.
The persistent news about the way Beijing was preparing for the Olympics and the stories of friends that had lived in the city for many years introduced me completely into just the atmosphere the Chinese government didn’t want us to feel (the Chinese government has a way of indicating what must be thought, to whoever and wherever).
The plans for the party were impressive and included all the aspects of life, if not in all of China, at least in Beijing: the infrastructure of the city, the weather, the people, the athletes, safety and culture.
You had to turn Beijing, before the start of the games, into a first world spot: transport, housing, stadiums, gyms, hotels, malls, and buildings that should become icons of Chinese progress. A long list of transformations were supposed to take place in an already existing city.
In three years I saw huge housing complexes from the communist era fall, and saw the rise, in their place, of new, luxurious and modern complexes where it was not the inhabitants of the old buildings (where 3-4 families were crowded in the same apartment) who would live there, but the new. emerging middle and high classes of the new China. In less than 3 years some 10 enormous shopping malls were built, with thousands of shops from all over the world. I saw the inauguration of an airport, three subway lines, the National Centre for the Arts (know as “the Egg”); I saw the construction of the wonderful CCTV tower (the offices for the official Chinese TV station), of the Olympic Green with the National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest) and the Swimming Stadium (the Water Cube), the 81 floor World Trade Centre tower; I watched how hutongs were renovated (and how many were destroyed), and how streets were renovated and reinvented through an imperial past (Qianmen); I saw how the Forbidden City was painted anew, as well as the Temple of Heaven, the hallways and towers of the Summer Palace, the Academy of Confucius, and dozens of smaller touristic spots.
The noise from machines, from explosions at construction sites, the voices of the workers themselves accompanied me for at least two years and a half.
Today I marvel at the speed of that transformation, at the architecture of some buildings, and at the same time I ask myself about the future of the thousands that were displaced as well as the thousands I saw work in deplorable conditions. Coming from a country like Mexico, I can recognise those conditions perfectly.
The staging of the performance, of the great theatre, would be sumptuous, unrivaled...
China promised ecological games, with pure and clean air, with buildings made from non polluting materials and renewable energy. Achieving that would prove possible on one hand (in the case of the buildings) and impossible on the other (the clean and pure air).
I remember my reply to an employee from the Embassy of Mexico in China, when she asked how Beijing looked when I first arrived: gray. Coming from Beirut, where sun and clear skies are the norm 300 days a year, the pollution of the Chinese capital was more than evident to me. With polluting factories in a valley of just some hundreds of square kilometres, with millions of cars and an indiscriminate use of coal for heating and energy, it seemed impossible that the organisers could deliver their clean and pure air promise. It sounded like there had to be some deceiving solution, and there was.
Even when preparations for avoiding pollutants were programmed in the government’s plans, the progress for the summer of 2008 were minimal; growth was, inevitable, the top priority. Then the somewhat logical solution appeared: if the celebrations were going to last two weeks (or a month, if you include the paralympic games), cutting down the number of vehicles on the streets by half, closing factories in a 30km radius around the city and stopping all building within the city should help achieve the theatric goal, the deception.
During the first week of the olympics we had blue clean skies the like of which we’d never seen, no excessive tiredness due to pollution, even a temperature considerably cooler than previous years.
It seemed this “temporary” solution provided the “temporary” frame needed for the theatre to come.
The government launched an enormous campaign to try to make Chinese more educated and civilised. Campaigns against spitting have existed in China since the arrival of communists to power, at least, but this habit was as ingrained as other hygienic and civil customs which differed from the west (like queuing to enter a place, for example), the race against time seemed lost without better education and without the feeling of humiliation that such acts represent in other societies.
Beijing, with a local population favoured by economic growth and by the civic responsibility of being the host city for the olympics and the representative of the whole of China during the games, needed just a bit of that campaign to achieve the required attitude, but the real problem were the millions of immigrant workers, Chinese as well, with their legal residence in other provinces, yet who live permanently in the capital. The lack of education, of social contact and civic responsibility (their main worry being finding a job to send money back to their families living in misery) made it practically impossible to achieve such a radical change in their social conduct. The solution to that, like for the weather, had to be temporary as well, with another theatric deception: the government decreed the exit of them all, of absolutely everybody without legal residence in Beijing, and those millions had to disappear for a month, like the factories and the ongoing constructions.
The casting for the extras for the great performance had been successful.
Even though the preparation of athletes for the Olympic Games would seem like a contradiction to my idea of a stage performance created for just two weeks of competitions, in reality there are two sides to it, as in that which is built with an express purpose. It is an investment that will give the country a concrete result long term (medals and gold medals and glory for the Chinese, of course), but it is also a medium for exalting ideas and images required by the government and its policy in this exact moment of its history.
The politics of media for presenting Chinese athletes was charged with an undisputed sense of nationalism and exalting of the Chinese as a race: every one of the athletes was carefully photographed to look handsome, strong, big, powerful; they wore make-up, they were dressed with the best sports attire, shown half-naked and showing their muscles; their profiles were praised, as well as their effort and their chances for winning. Without knowing it for sure, I dare say that no negative news or criticism was allowed; everything was hope, a desire for winning, the praising of their capabilities.
The athletic-nationalist propaganda was fruitful, the Chinese were at the top of the medal tally, with the only mistakes being the waste of time and money on stars that didn’t deliver (Yao Ming and Liu Xing), and the terrible surprise that what the world would remember Beijing as the glory of swimmer Michael Phelp’s 8 medals and the three medals of Bolt, the Jamaican runner.
Living in China means living in a safe country: crime is minimal and, in general, terrorism hasn’t made its appearance, with the exception of some well defined regions. The media are mostly controlled by the state, the government gives the guidelines for what not to say and, sometimes, of what to say, and sometimes what to say in a very precise way, or what to stop seeing. The same applies to art and education, and even more to politics and religion. Freedom exists within the causeways the government, legitimate holder of national sovereignty, dictates; and that’s when security reaches further.
I had never seen so many security measures (and I must say I’ve been in London and New York at times of great paranoia due to terrorism). The city was under siege by security forces, who didn’t let anyone enter or leave without express permission, knocking on every door to check we had all our papers in order (I had to leave for Thailand to get a new visa); nightclubs had to be safe, without drug-dealers or prostitutes for others to see.
Once more, the performance would last two weeks (or a whole month) and everything had to run smoothly, without conflict; and so it was. There was no street violence (except for an unfortunate incident of an American stabbed to death), no political violence (there were minimal demonstrations), and no terrorism (at least not in Beijing).
My way to the olympic stadium on the day of the closing ceremony was clearly indicated by three security lines: the volunteers that told me which way to go and which not to go; the police that would stop me if I was going the wrong way; and the army that, like toy soldiers, stood stern, firm, in their places at the back. Even though you were free to express your joy, it was impossible not to feel intimidation towards your freedom of action, and I wondered, how far within the legality these people had dictated was I? when would I cross the line? At least, until the end of the games, I wasn’t a danger for security, and I’m glad I wasn’t.
China created its present cultural policy due to the events of 20th Century’s last years, Tian’anmen the main of them. After the rebirth, experimenting and opening of the arts during the era of Deng Xiaoping, the Tian’anmen massacre marked the whole of the Chinese cultural sphere. Most of the initiators and supporters of the movement had been artists, poets, writers, and stage performers who worked towards a dream millions had had in 1968, a dream that reached China more than 20 years late and with clear particularities.
The answer to that all, among others, of course, was an impressive control over every “message”, be it direct or hidden, within an artistic piece. As mass media, the arts had a non-written code where the government censored based on the piece itself.
The Chinese government has taken part in the liberty and punishment game when that freedom is taken too far. The artist must be sensible and sensitive enough to know what he writes, films, edits or paints, and to tread up to where sight and eye allow and live with that.
The preparations covered two spheres, what was allowed, and what was not allowed. Within what was allowed were traditional arts, TV, dance, visual arts, comic theatre and musicals, as well as commercial films which praised Chinese history and the Chinese nation. Zhang Yimou was chosen as the stage director and creator of the opening and closing ceremonies, and he was chosen for being redeemed by the new China; famous for his first inroads in cinema, and accused by the government of that time for poisoning China’s image abroad, thanks to the new cultural policy he becomes close to the government and begins a glorious career of praising the Chinese nation, its history and achievements, and is “accused” by many today for being the Leni Riefenstahl of the Chinese communist party’s new philosophy (“the glory of Chinese past”).
And within what was not allowed... everything else (think about it).
So many preparations and in so little time had turned the daily life of a citizen of Beijing into something truely surreal; that which stood one day disappeared the next, what had been censored out of the blue weeks before was allowed during the two olympic weeks (my blog was one of those surprises); with no immigrant workers around, Beijing became a clean city, civilised, educated, pleasing; the air was breathable and there were plants everywhere; everywhere was safe, with no excesses, protests, alterations of order, without accessible hookers nor gay saunas; yes, the surprise was driving me mad. The were going to make it... for two weeks.
Could I stop thinking about theatre, and in particular about the kind of theatre that transformed the “visible” world of the great capitals of the Baroque?
The idea kept coming back to my mind, the idea of that "Gran Teatro del Mundo" of the Baroque, which transformed cities, was forging Beijing. (1)
(1) Of course the Chinese possess a long tradition of theatricality in their social life, with an obsession for showing, in an artificial way, their best face to visitors, and hiding or erasing any trace that could lend itself to criticism.