Throughout the last decade people have been being evicted from housing in Beijing to make way for construction projects with little compensation, often accompanied by threats of violence.
The Olympics was no exception to this, with UNESCO estimating that 580,000 people were displaced in the years before the Games as part of wider ‘urban renewal’ schemes.
However, it was also an opportunity for protestors (of house clearances and of other issues) to get wider exposure, and therefore a threat. Faced with this, the Beijing authorities set up dedicated protest ‘zones’ which required registration and approval. Predictably, this process was then used for further crackdown, not limited to the collection of information: the Washington Post detailed disappearances of activists and other repressive measures:
Liu Zhenlu, whose daughter died when her school collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake in May, […] was prevented by local officials from travelling to Beijing for a protest permit to draw attention to shoddy construction practices. After The Washington Post reported on the confrontation, Liu disappeared. His wife said he was gone from about 5 p.m. on Aug. 11 until the following day at 3 p.m., when a few friends were allowed to pick him up at the police station.
“He just sat at home and wouldn’t say a word. We gave up trying to ask him what happened,” one friend said before quickly hanging up the phone, which he said was monitored. “We’re worried the government will take us, too.”
The activist Hu Jia was jailed in the run-up to the Olympics after incendiary comments to the European Parliament about reprisals against dissidents in China. His wife and daughter later ‘disappeared’ the day before the opening ceremony, and all three were only released much later. His comments were:
Any human rights activists that talk too loudly are silenced. Millions of innocent people are persecuted in China. They are beaten, imprisoned and sometimes even sent to psychiatric hospitals. Every day the public security minister causes a catastrophe in human rights! As for the Olympic Games, we all hoped they would bring democracy. But the CCP just uses the games as a way to enhance itself, as was the case in 1936. Right now, persecution rates in China are at their highest. To give you an idea: the top boss in charge of the Olympics is also the chief of the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing! That’s really ironic. It’s as if the mafia was in charge of the Olympics.
The impression I had through 2008 was that these controversies were at the forefront of people’s mind leading up to the Games, through the disastrous torch relay in London which was only able to happen thanks to a huge police effort (see picture), to the recurring stories about air quality and fears for athlete’s lungs.
But then the British team started to do well, the negative stories gave way to tales of plucky archers and cyclists, and the media gave up treating it as anything other than a sporting event. When in fact I’d argue the sport is more or less a sideshow for development and allocation of money into infrastructure.
A year later I was living there, and the city was smooth, the trauma invisible.
I’ve linked before to the short story “The Olympic Dream“, in which the residents of Beijing ‘take their medicine’ to make the Games as successful as possible, for the greater good, to improve the country’s self-image (image of its governance) and its allure to the outside world.
This seems to be a recurring trope in contemporary Chinese fiction, such as in Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, where the population is fed ecstasy to help repress negative memories, and Han Song’s My Homeland Does Not Dream, where workers are drugged in order to be able to work extra shifts while asleep.
To finish, I’m going to post extracts from my own writing. In the first, two characters are standing on top of the Beijing Drum Tower, in the course of their research into the demolition of the nearby area, Houhai (which is not related to the Olympics, but the strategies are the same).
They had visited it the previous day, to see the hutongs from above, to get hold of the spaces involved, to start thinking about accompanying photography as well, Cecile had said. There they had looked down over the roofs, their serrated or fluted brickwork curving or straight, mashed styles, the courtyards not obvious, all tangled with telephone wires and the budding forks of tree branches. The angle was wrong for seeing the passages linking them, or any people within, but the contrast to the rest of the skyline was clear enough, Guomao scraping up in the east, the sun reddening the pollution in the west. The pagodas on the top of Coal Hill south of them. They had walked around the different edges looking out.
“Something bad happened here, didn’t it?”
“Why, can you feel voices calling out to you from another plane, almost in hearing, lost in the traffic noise?”
Mary had pushed her away. “No, I’ve read about something. Before I came. The name was – in the papers?”
“Yeah, there was. There was.” She looked around at the other tourists. “In the summer of the Olympics a man stabbed three people and – jumped. One of them died.”
“Huh. That’s right. There’s no pleasure in putting a name to the feeling.” Cecile looked at her. “Of something bad, I mean.”
“Ok.” She wandered around the carved edges, the stone wall with ornament holes left in the spaces between the loops of friezed decoration which looked like wings or ears, leaving concave triangles through which the roads and plazas beneath could be seen.
“Are you looking down at the ground, C? Don’t tell me you’re thinking about which way he went. This way or that for the most drama.”
“Drama? You think so?”
They stood in silence and didn’t mention the attack again until descending the steps to leave. The late-May air was warm in the evenings but still started to chill when night fell.
“Is it relevant?” Mary wanted to know. “Maybe it is. Maybe you should write about it.”
“But what’s the reason for including anything about that? It’s got nothing to do with demolitions.”
“It all connects in a long chain, from the Olympics that were happening even as he did it – the guy was with the American Olympic team, wasn’t he? All the destruction that happened around the stadium building, all the arrests, the disappearances, the ‘holidays’ out of town for activists. And then it comes back to here, to this area, the same things taking place again. Do you know what I mean?”
“If you start chasing the chain according to where you want it to take you, I can’t see how to avoid that patronising tone.” She grimaced. “The salt-of-the-earth metal worker’s response to the pressures of modern China, to globalisation, to tourism. The Olympics as a defining moment for anyone – national – who lives in Beijing. Mental illness as heroism, coming out of social situation only, without any physical form. The impossibility of really understanding how China works, what goes on in their heads, these Chinese men. There’s too much number, too much suffering, to explain anything. No, there’s a story here which you don’t need to make too complicated, evictions and destruction of historic buildings to make way for shopping centres and metro lines. It’s not a state of the nation address.”
Mary wanted to make sure it was clear why she had thought it. “Ok, I guess you’re right. But you see why I thought it?”
“I mean, they want to build a museum underground called Beijing Time Cultural City. Underground. With a shopping centre and restaurants. It is what it is, and everything else has to fall outside.”
In the second, two teachers retrace the steps of a school trip to the Bird’s Nest stadium, in order to think over the effect on young children of this colossal feat of architecture.
A straightforward change to Line 8 took them out gleaming into the Olympic surroundings, paths and high-rises receding on the approach to it, the ground levelling out into an immense plaza containing only the truncated dome of the Bird’s Nest, out of the half-pipe cambers of the street and its building sides, tubular, directed in lines, presented again the walls and floors of a corridor, or the platforms and tracks of an underground train.
The shape of the stadium from the plaza was squat and irregular, a fat tower of non-parabolic bend, but it was so easy to be seen from the ground with a glance that knew itself to be the wrong angle and so made it look right, as the sun blinded over its rim or off the taped metal wicker, creating a smooth inflection of the satellite view, or the angular panoramas of video camera, the sweeping, ringing accord of helicopter flight, with its own diagonal language, and then placed on screen scaled down to the size and intricacy of a resting-place, a bed of down and kindling for chicks and splintering eggshell. The land around was flat, a new kind of sheerness that came in a horizontal dose, so even and planed as to take on a sense of curving downwards with the earth, a slight convexity of asphalt or concavity of the sky that maybe was real, maybe was the impression of more matter, more places to stand and possible directions to move upon it than there were points of grey light to ascribe, and so we bend it, the mind bends it to process it, how people once knew the earth was round from its sweep and horizons, whereas now it’s map-flat, only in vast engineering and the hallowing of space for spectacle does change exist.
There was no sign of trenches or construction work left anywhere, the cables all lain and buried, no foundations to houses, no dips of cellar or trough, no rise of kerb, dipping back to touch the tarmac at crossing-points, no pavement, raised or stony path, crumbling wall or thick, plumed-metal fence, no barriers to property, no front door step, no hesitancy in the footfall on it, required to connect with the two eyes, both, binocular, an unnoticeable pause every time contact was made as nerves rushed to the eyes and thought about scale, no tripping, no missing the ground like at the foot of a staircase that wasn’t, just flat, even, planned, the flatness that seemed to bend down at the edges of huge flat human spaces, the land around the stadium. They had bent earth into it.
On the other sides, the narrower edges between curtailing roads, there were paths, cut with scalene triangles of lawn in between them, small and fractured looking from above, like cracked pieces of green remaining after something had happened. The two of them picked around them aimlessly for a bit, while others rushed down the lanes into and away from the entrances. Paul was pleased to have persuaded her to come, although in the end he hadn’t even said anything, she had just decided for them. “Like broken pieces of something,” he said.
“Like a…” she thought about it. “Hey, do you realise you were here on the day of the earthquake?”
“A real earthquake? No, I mean the lawns look like something’s broken leftovers.”
“Yes, a real one. Didn’t you hear about it? There was an earthquake in the west of China.”
He hadn’t heard about it yet. They picked around the lawns closer to the stadium, until they got inside its shadow.
“So here you all were, all of Year Five, in the perfect place not to notice things. I’m sure the arena was built to be resistant to whatever.” It stood and shone in the blue sky light. They were getting near the doors.
“We’re not going inside, are we?” Although it wasn’t like there was anything else to do here, Paul thought. Just come here and not go inside. “It’s fifty kuai. Although the school got a group discount for educational visits.”