Beijing is game

Print edition : June 02, 2006

The Chinese capital is undergoing a revolutionary transformation to play host to the 29th Olympic Games.

PALLAVI AIYAR in Beijing

THE OFFICIAL LOGO of the 2008 Olympic Games displayed in a shop in Beijing.-FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP

THE erstwhile seat of the Mongols and the Manchus, Beijing is currently in the midst of a makeover of Olympic proportions. The city's planners seem to have taken the Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger" quite literally. Beijing's skyline soars ever upwards with vertiginous speed.

By 2008, when Beijing will host the 29th Olympic Games, the city hopes to have banished its present afflictions of traffic-clogged avenues, smoggy environs and malodorous public facilities, to emerge as a gleaming citadel of the future emblematic of China's rise as a global power.

To this end, around $40 billion is being invested in upgrading infrastructure, constructing Olympic venues and implementing environmental projects. Over the next two and a half years, Beijing plans some 10 million square metres of spanking new construction in the city's central business district, an additional 113 km of new subway tracks, and hundreds of kilometres of multi-laned motorways; the construction and expansion of 318 km of downtown urban streets; and the building of one of the world's largest airports.

Towards this end, vast areas of the city are being razed and rebuilt from scratch. Predatory cranes and wrecking balls do not just dot the cityscape but invade it in trundling troops.

"For the last couple of years, Beijing has had to update its city map every three months because of all the new roads and construction," says Sun Weide, Deputy Director of Communications, Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG). By some estimates, half the world's production of concrete and one third of its steel output are consumed by China's voracious appetite for construction. This is an appetite that in the case of Beijing is leading to a furiously expanding city.

In the 1980s, Beijing's city limits were marked by a single ring road running along its outskirts. Today, China's capital boasts three more ring roads circling around the ever-enlarging boundary of the city. Construction on a sixth ring road has now begun and will be completed in time for the Olympics, according to the Beijing Municipal Reform and Development Commission. With Beijing's avenues already sagging under the weight of two million vehicles, a drive to expand public transportation facilities is also under way. Four new subway lines are in the process of being added to the three existing routes. By the time of the Olympics, a special rail line will connect Beijing's airport to the city centre.

The airport itself is undergoing a gargantuan expansion with a new terminal scheduled for completion by 2007. The terminal is designed by the British architect Norman Foster, known for creating cathedrals in glass. His creations include the German Reichstag's dome and HSBC's Hong Kong headquarters. Following the expansion, Beijing's airport will be able to handle 60 million passengers a year; its current capacity is 36 million. The $2-billion project is one of the several prestige projects associated with the Olympic Games intended to impress with its scale and futuristic design.

AN ARTIST'S RENDITION of the $374-million National Stadium for the Games. It is designed in the form of a mammoth bird's nest encased in a transparent membrane supported by steel mesh and will accommodate more than 90,000 spectators.-AFP

Other mega construction projects include the Olympic Stadium and the National Swimming Centre. The stadium is designed in the form of a mammoth bird's nest encased in a transparent membrane supported by steel mesh and will accommodate more than 90,000 spectators. The $374-million building is designed by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, best known for transforming an old power station on the banks of London's Thames river into the uber-chic Tate Modern Art Museum.

Next door to the stadium is the $100-million, 17,000-seat, National Swimming Centre, designed by the Australian firm PTW and nicknamed the "Water Cube", given that its walls and roof are intended to resemble flowing water. In total Beijing will sport 31 Olympic venues, 11 of which are being constructed.

Two other buildings intended to become must-see tourist sights for Olympic visitors are the new China Central Television (CCTV) tower and the French architect Paul Andreu's National Theatre. The national theatre is a titanium-and-glass oval structure, which critics have nicknamed "the alien egg". The size of four soccer pitches, the "egg" will float upon an artificial lake, to the west of Tiananmen Square.

The $700-million, 70-floor-high, CCTV tower will be the showpiece of Beijing's central business district. Designed by Dutch architectural super-star Rem Koolhaas, its gravity-defying "twisted donut shape" is reminiscent of a paradoxical M.C. Escher drawing.

The gaggle of international architectural celebrities who have been hired to create the new avant garde Beijing are inspiring a host of local architects and designers to go into a creative overdrive. Mega malls and high-rise apartment complexes with aspirational names such as Park Avenue, Windsor Palace and SOHO are mushrooming. According to China's official news agency Xinhua, it is estimated that in total Beijing will develop some 25 million square metres of property between 2002 and 2008. While a lot of this construction may not be directly related to the Olympics, the Games have become "an indirect driving force for social and economic change," explains Sun Weide.

However, not everyone is happy with the changes. Following the Communist revolution in 1949, Beijing's city walls were torn down as decadent symbols of the imperial past. Now the destruction of one of the world's most ancient capitals continues apace. It is estimated that between 2001 and 2008, 350,000 city households will be forced to relocate and their homes demolished to make way for expensive new developments.

The municipal authorities recently devised an "architectural preservation" project, but critics say that rather than preserving the city's graceful courtyard houses and winding alleyways called hutongs, the project will entail their destruction and replacement with gaudy, faux "traditional-style" housing with a hefty price tag.

Sun Weide, however, insists that upgrading Beijing's infrastructure necessitates the demolition of substandard and dilapidated housing and that a "harmonious blend" of the traditional and the modern will be ensured.

Others are critical of the city's physical mutations on aesthetic grounds. "Beijing is a city of great antiquity but now it increasingly looks like any other Western city except that it is uglier," laments Sun Jing, a 25-year-old resident of Beijing. In fact, most of the city's "new" architecture resembles a grotesque cross between Bauhaus and Baroque with a dash of Bathroom thrown in for good measure. The capital abounds with glistening white, bathroom-tiled office buildings capped with UFO-like neon roofs that look set to "lift off" at any moment. The massive model of what Beijing will look like in 2008, on display at the City Planning museum, reveals a mish-mash of architectural styles that give the city a discordant, atonal look. "There is no theme or logic behind the new buildings," says Leo Shen, a recent graduate from China's Communication University.

Nonetheless, despite the critics, on the whole the Olympics are seen by the average Zhou as a source of deep pride and by the municipal authorities as a chance to address a wide range of problems facing the city.

Almost $2 billion has been earmarked for whipping the capital's public utilities such as water, power and gas into shape. Hundreds of public toilets are being renovated. According to Beijing municipal authorities, over $10 million a year will be spent until 2008 on building these new "luxurious lavatories" complete with granite floors, flushes, toilet paper, hand dryers and disabled access. Drainage systems and garbage disposal mechanisms are being improved. Even the animals in Beijing zoo have cause to cheer, as plans to upgrade their living conditions are being devised, all in the name of the Olympics.

Given that the 2008 Olympics is being billed as the "Green Olympics", $5.5 billion is being spent on environmental projects. Dozens of polluting factories in central Beijing have already been relocated to the city's outskirts. Forest cover in the capital is set to increase by 50 per cent. According to BOCOG, by the time of the Olympics, 90 per cent of all buses and 70 per cent of taxis will use clean fuel.

But Beijing is not just changing physically. It is the local government's intention to use the Olympics to transfigure Beijingers themselves, turning them into smiling, service-oriented folk welcoming "foreign friends" to their city in English. "Olympic English" classes have sprouted in every neighbourhood. Armies of senior citizens armed with an official textbook rousingly titled "Don't be shy, just try" take English lessons every weekend. Police officers and taxi drivers have been ordered to master at least 200 phrases of English. The aim is to have four million or so of the city's 14 million inhabitants familiar with their ABC. Efforts are also on to rid the city of "Chinglish". Hotlines have been set up for beady-eyed citizens who spot a language-related mistake on a public sign to call and notify the authorities.

Moreover, neighbourhood committees are being encouraged to teach their members how to mind their Ps and Qs and create "courteous communities". BOCOG has identified five lacunae in the city's social etiquette, which it is the committee's stated aim to redress by 2008. These include: Beijing-style name-calling, casual spitting, littering, disorderly queuing and not smiling.

However, the problems of littering and spitting may soon be overcome by the civilising effects of potted plants and books. In their drive to create courteous citizens the city government has instituted a "morality-evaluation index" that ranks neighbourhoods according to the level of refinement they have achieved. The competition between neighbourhoods is intense. Neighbourhood committees across Beijing vie with one another in organising weekend discussions on edifying topics such as "Host the Olympics with civility" and "Smile in Beijing".

According to the criteria laid out in the "guidelines for the building of courteous communities", sharing housework, speaking a foreign language, regular reading of newspapers, large book collections and balconies displaying potted plants boost the neighbourhood score on the civility index while spitting, alcohol abuse, raising pigeons, rearing livestock at home and noisiness act as black marks. It is BOCOG's goal to ensure that by the end of 2008, 50 per cent of all neighbourhoods have reached the point where they can be considered to be "communities with adequate civility".

So far these efforts have had little noticeable effect. Taxi drivers complain that they are unable to retain the dozens of English phrases that they laboriously learn to pass mandatory tests. English signs across the city remain a source of considerable bewilderment to those unused to decoding Chinglish, such as ones advising walkers in public parks to "slip carefully".

Nonetheless, that the Olympics is transforming Beijing architecturally, historically and even temperamentally is undeniable. The city is quite literally on Olympic time, with dozens of gigantic clocks counting down the days to the Games adorning the major streets. Beijing knows that it has somewhat of a tryst with destiny in 2008, a tryst it is determined to keep.

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