After visiting grand Shanghai and glittering Chongqing, it was in a taxi in Dongguan that my view of China took a small, but important shift. I was traveling with a friend to the South China Mall, down the main road that stretches from the city’s train station all the way out to the suburbs. It was Olympics time, but we were a far cry from Beijing’s impressive Bird’s Nest.
The train station was bustling with passengers, laborers and managers who clogged up nearby cafes and bars, eating cost-efficient meals before getting on buses to their offices or factories or wholesale shops. We were trying to get to a magical place, though, a place hailed as the world’s largest shopping mall. But we knew something was not quite right as the crowds thinned out and the buildings got taller but the streets got emptier. The downtown megacity was full of half-empty towers and ambitious but abandoned construction projects for new skyscrapers. The media, even China’s state-media Xinhua, was already reporting on falling property prices and demand well before the Olympics, and in Dongguan, it was obvious, even to our taxi driver, that things were not as great as so many people thought they were.
At a University of Southern California conference on Friday, scholars gave more academic perspectives on China’s Olympics. Anthropologist Susan Brownell discussed China’s goals as hosts. Contrary to popular belief, she said, most of their efforts were turned toward their domestic audience. They did not have a “master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world.” She outlines this argument in a post on The China Beat and in her book, Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.
China promised to host a “People’s Olympics,” but can that kind of agenda survive, or even have any effect on the post-Olympics ground reality? Stanley Rosen raised the question, citing the warnings of state-run weekly magazine Outlook. Because of rising unemployment, reporter Huang Huo wrote that China is entering a “peak period for mass incidents.” Rosen, a USC professor of political science, pointed out significant, and emotional, upcoming anniversaries; May 4 will mark the 90 year anniversary of Beijing student protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement for populism and June 4 will mark the 20 year anniversary of the violent put-down of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Economist Jeffrey Owen stressed that the Olympics did not provide direct financial benefit to Beijing or China. With a $40 billion price tag, including Olympics and Olympics-related costs, the gains come more in the form of less quantifiable “legacy effects,” the good feelings, China brand building, and the international education received by volunteers, students and residents of Beijing. Certainly, Chinese residents of the second-tier cities, like Chongqing and Shenzen, felt pride for the country’s successes, even though they were far-removed from the glamor and cameras. But still, they, like me and my traveling companion, became very tired of the Game’s soundtrack.
Last week’s conference, hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Center for International Studies and the US-China Institute, was filled with interesting food for thought. But it was hard to get the repetetive refrains Beijing Huan Ying Ni out of my head every time I thought about my time in China. A friend in Chongqing told me the young people there were alternately pulling their hair out and making lewd parodies of the song, just to make its constant presence bearable. So while Premeir Wen Jiabao does his best to spread hope for China’s near future on his global financial goodwill tour, it’s still difficult to figure out if the Beijing Olympics gave China any significant leg up, if it was, as the conference asked, a “Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?”
So what happened when we finally got to the world’s biggest mall? My friend, Anka Lee, wrote about it for NBC in San Francisco. But I think you can guess that it was not as triumphant as Beijng’s fantastic opening ceremonies.