Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2008 | Features

Notes on the Beijing Olympics

By Jim Hill

It was a beautiful Olympics. If you put aside the negative press leading up to the Games and looked only at the big picture--the dazzling architecture of the venues, the spectacle of the opening ceremony, the flawless execution of 302 events in 28 sports--then the 29th Olympiad in Beijing was a gold-medal performance.

From the enthralling opening ceremony in the bird's nest stadium, we knew that something remarkable was in the works. This would be no ordinary Games. Those spectators lucky enough to be in Beijing knew it especially well, and those, like me, who had returned to China after many years knew it better than most. We looked past the lovely venues of the Olympic Park and saw an entire city transformed, built up and spruced up in the extreme, recast as an equal to any of the great cities of the West--certainly an equal to any of the previous host cities for the Games.

It was not the Beijing I had left 19 years before in a fumbling rush after the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Gone were the dark streets at night, the soot-laden lung-burning air, the avenues flowing thick with black bicycles, the residents in their drab Mao jackets and caps casually clearing their throats and spitting, the frantic scrum of riders at the doors of the rickety buses, the vagrants, the beggars.

Here was a clean, modern city with tall, glass-fronted buildings, whose broad avenues were filled with new cars and sleek buses. Here was a city with blue sky overhead and good, breathable air under it. Residents in modern Western fashions walked the avenues with a confident air or rode the sleek, efficient subway. Nowhere could be seen the homeless and destitute.

True, the human price of this beautification was generally known, thanks to the news stories leading up to the Games. The vagrants and mentally ill had been scooped up and detained or sent away, and those who might have posed a threat to the Games by demonstrating for one cause or another were required to register with the police and were then confined to "protest zones" in three public parks, well away from the Olympic venues. In a feat of environmental engineering , traffic in and around the city was dramatically cut back to reduce air pollution There was even talk of weather modification efforts to keep the rain away.

You could say that China's Olympic effort had transformed a developing country to a showcase of modernity within the space of a few years. You might have suspected that Beijing was a Potemkin city with a false front thrown up for the Games. But it was real enough. I had to travel outside of Beijing--leave the tourist grid--and visit a city that had not received the Olympic treatment to see another side of large-scale modernizaton.

Shijiazhuang is an industrial city (textiles, pharmaceuticals) of a million-plus people, 160 miles south of Beijing. It has several universities, among them Hebei Normal University, where I had taught English language and literature in the 1988-89 school year. For me, going back was a long-anticipated sentimental journey to a dear old school to visit friends I had not seen in nearly 20 years.

The city had changed. Shijiazhuang had undergone astonishing growth in terms of construction, but it had taken a path to modernization different from that of Beijing. Most of the squat, picturesque single-story shops of 1988 have disappeared, many of them replaced by massive high-rise office buildings and apartments (a local ordinance called for the razing of all 2-story buildings to make way for high rises). To my eyes that growth had been dizzyingly chaotic, a mad disorderly rush of building with no thoughtful planning for the habitable spaces that urban people need.

Yuhua Road bisects Shijiazhuang from west to east, linking the Central Railway Station to the campus of Hebei Normal University, a mile away. Twenty years ago, it was an open avenue filled with sturdy black bicycles, a few cars, and many creaking buses. I could leave the university's front gate and easily bicycle down to the station and back to campus, passing workers with straw brooms out in the road sweeping the dusty street. Today the bicycles have been pushed to the side by automobile traffic. Cars fill the six-lane width of Yuhua Road, speeding along crazily and giving no quarter to bicyclists or pedestrians, as if the stakes for quick transit of a few city blocks were life or death. Twenty years ago I would walk across the road at noon to jog at the university track: Today that's not possible. A pedestrian footbridge arches over the fast-moving traffic.

There were always too many people in Shijiazhuang, but the bicycles of an earlier time made the numbers tolerable, even endearing when, for example, I'd see a family together on a bicycle, mother and child balanced on a seat behind the father who stoically worked the pedals. A thin stream of bicycles remain, but they're unnoticed in the broad river of cars frantically and noisily pushing their way forward, oblivious to all traffic signals. The air, still laden with coal smoke, is further punished by the exhaust of these thousands of cars.

Still there is Changan Park, the lungs of the city, where the urban dwellers come out in the summer evening to unwind, to walk free of traffic. At least that is unchanged.

The two cities, Beijing and Shijiazhuang, offer a fascinating contrast of how modernization is being played out in China's ongoing economic boom: One is a model of planning and engineering---witness the crowning jewel of the Olympics--and the other a chaotic display of pell-mell growth with little thought to the human consequences. It's an odd pairing that invites speculation: What kind of city would Shijiazhuang be with an Olympic makeover a la Beijing? At the very least, Yuhua Road would be less hazardous.