The Last Page

One City, One Dream

By Yu Zhou

Seven years ago, in the spring of 2001, I was on sabbatical in Beijing. For a few weeks, I found the city visibly anxious: the International Olympic Committee was inspecting Beijing as a potential host for the 2008 summer games. The streets were cleaned up and lined with flowers. Residents were instructed to be friendly, at least for a few days.

The local school my seven-year-old attended held an event to celebrate the Olympics and invited parents. It was then that my son pleaded: “Mom, can we come back to Beijing in 2008?” “Most definitely,” I answered. It was a promise I made for my son, and a promise Beijing made to the world.

I grew up in Beijing and only left it in my twenties. Outsiders know its legendary monuments: Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City. I know it as a place for family and friends, with distinct neighborhoods and vibrant universities, famous for its humor and outspokenness. Living in a city that has served as a national capital for some 800 years, Beijingers have a keen sense of ownership of history and politics. They talk about international affairs as if it were all happening next door; they discuss ancient history as if it were yesterday. Yet for all of its rich heritage, Beijing is also known for not paying much attention to its appearance. The city is dusty, polluted, and chaotic, full of cars and ugly buildings.

But that was 2001. Since then, Beijing has undergone an extreme makeover. Old neighborhoods and farm fields disappeared,
replaced by highways, parks, high rises, and stadiums. The city literally changed its color as its old buses and taxis were replaced by a shining new fleet and dreary buildings got a new coat of paint. And then: Pang! It was all done! Three new subway lines, a futuristic airport, and a new train station, all open for business. I stepped into a Beijing hardly recognizable from even a year ago.

I quickly learned that the Olympics meant two things to locals: security checks and colossal inconvenience. Starting in late July, the streets were full of police motorcycles, and the air with police helicopters. None of this was familiar to Beijingers. The only recent memory of this level of security was in 1989, immediately after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Those were Beijing’s darkest days. The city’s residents, shocked by the bloodshed, cursed and attacked the soldiers. Nothing like that was felt this time. The police were polite and professional, and the biggest concern was the traffic. Many streets were closed. Car owners faced the inconvenience of only being allowed to drive on odd or even days, depending on their plate number. Beijing’s newly expanded public transit system bulged at the seams as it moved a population of 17 million around. But all was not grim: the youthful volunteers everywhere brightened up the city with their unfailing energy and smiles.

If you had asked the residents their honest opinion before the Olympics, they would have told you they wanted it be over so that they could get on with their lives. But as soon as the games started, that sentiment evaporated as Beijingers were instantly awed and captivated by the human drama of the games. I took my kids to the Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube, and a few smaller stadiums scattered around the city. Fans from all over the world mixed. Brazilians danced, Americans paraded, Europeans shouted, Koreans chanted. I didn’t have tickets to Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, but I cheered on two Iraqi rowers who finished last, and a Taiwanese badminton player who bravely competed against a hopelessly superior Chinese athlete. 

Chinese fans used to show little interest in sports in which no fellow Chinese were participating. But I saw the Bird’s Nest filled to capacity for track and field preliminaries for which few Chinese athletes qualified. Chinese fans also used to humiliate Chinese athletes who had failed their expectations, but this time they were supportive even when star hurdler Liu Xiang dropped out. Only a few years ago, many Chinese fans viewed Chinese coaches who worked for other national teams as traitors. But at the Olympics, audiences cheered for the United States women’s volleyball team, led by coach Lang Ping, all the way to the silver medal — even when the U.S. victory meant the defeat of the Chinese national team.

People often wonder what the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will be. The truth is that two weeks of games will not change China’s political system, nor will it change Western reactions to it. But in Beijing, I saw not just the spectacular games, but also the growth of a people who are learning to receive the world with confidence, openness, and tolerance.

Yu Zhou is a professor in the Department of Earth Science and Geography