Pride mixes with worry at being misunderstood

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / August 3, 2008

BEIJING - In a shaded neighborhood less than 10 miles from the glistening Olympic stadiums, Xue-qun Shan described himself as a proud Chinese patriot, but also a slightly anxious onlooker as the Games begin this week.

His worry? That the world will misunderstand his native land once again.

The retired construction worker's weathered hands have helped build some of the towering structures that have altered the city skyline. But while the native Beijinger, 61, has cringed as historic neighborhoods were flattened in the rush to the new Chinese economy, he believes "80 percent" of the changes have improved the lives of ordinary people, giving most of them flush toilets, refrigerators, and washing machines that were rare specialty items three decades ago.

These are the simple facts of life that China's critics, focused on controversial political issues such as Tibetan independence and human rights, miss, he said.

"Many foreigners do not know the real China," Shan said, who grew up in Tuan Jie Hu, a neighborhood of about 50,000 residents. "We are misunderstood. They do not know how much progress there has been."

With the Olympics only five days away, Shan's sentiment was echoed repeatedly by dozens of other longtime residents in this Beijing neighborhood of densely packed apartment buildings that surround a tree-lined commercial thoroughfare and lake-side park. For many, it precedes expressions of pride in the moment.

Of course, they hope their country tops the gold-medal count and orchestrates a smoothly run, incident-free Olympics that helps China "gain face" before the world. But mainly they hope the 500,000 foreigners, 20,000 journalists, and 10,000 athletes visiting China - including President Bush and the heads of state of some 80 governments - come to better understand the complicated challenges of the "new China" and become less quick to criticize their country.

They describe China as a once-backward nation that is modernizing while trying to retain the positive aspects of its ancient culture. Hosting the Olympics, they said, is a huge symbolic step down that path.

"The Olympics should be one of China's most glorious and proud moments," Shan said.

It would be easy to depreciate these comments as parroting the sentiments of China's ruling Communist Party and its government-controlled press, which regularly describes the Middle Kingdom as under attack by outsiders ignorant of Chinese history. Yet in the Tuan Jie Hu neighborhood, residents sounded like anything but pawns. Many people freely voiced criticisms of the government, including how the city's rapid development has raised rents and created frustrating traffic jams. The nation's environmental problem - which has even affected the lake in the Tuan Jie Hu park - was raised repeatedly as a crisis issue.

"The water here used to be clear," said Wang Bing Xiang, a retired employee in a plastic company, as he looked at the dark green lake water.

Still, most people point first to the fact that they are enjoying lives they never imagined a generation ago - even after retirement, which is required of most men by age 60 and most women by age 55.

"Look, we get good pension benefits and medical insurance coverage," said a retired factory worker, who gave his surname as Tang and is working as a volunteer tour guide for the Olympics. "What else do I want?"

Parts of old and new China blend together in the Tuan Jie Hu neighborhood. Many residents own cars, and most of them own their apartments after years of being renters. The local restaurants, which are adorned these days with red Chinese flags in honor of the Olympics, are crammed with young adults at lunchtime. Meanwhile, in the park, groups of residents practice ancient calligraphy and tai chi, as well as form evening singing groups, including one that belted out a song Thursday night about China entering a "new era." On a park bench, a gray-haired man took four varnished walnuts and rotated them repeatedly in the palm of one hand, a traditional hand dexterity exercise.

Many spoke of how little Westerners understand the distinctive aspects of Chinese culture, particularly the Confucian concept of personal sacrifices made for the common good. While many foreigners see China's one-child policy as strange and oppressive, most couples accept this limitation a necessary restriction to cope with China's population problem, they said. They also said many tolerate government rules that require preregistration before holding public demonstrations, a concession, they say, to the government's need to maintain social order in a sprawling nation of 1.3 billion people.

Residents of the Tuan Jie Hu neighborhood are among the many thousands of ordinary citizens who were helping the city, on a paid or unpaid basis, prepare for the Olympics that begin at 8:08 p.m. on 8/08/08 - a time chosen based on a superstitious belief that eight is lucky because it sounds, in Chinese, like the word for prosperity. Janitors have meticulously swept the floors of the new $480 million, 91,000-seat national stadium where a vast fireworks display is set to go off Friday. Some workers have distributed to Chinese spectators a four-part cheer approved by the government-run "etiquette" academy. Beijing hairdressers are poised to help foreign athletes look well coiffed, even taking lessons on how to cut softer, non-Asian hair.

Some residents also cited complaints that the nation has spent the extraordinary sum of $40 billion for the Olympics, a price tag that includes a new airport and subway lines, as well as new stadium venues, and is actively manipulating ordinary people into a frenzy of hospitality. Even a Beijing newspaper made references to such criticisms.

"Some Western media jeered China for its ardent effort to prepare for the Games," said a recent article in China Daily. "They should try to understand the Chinese culture. . . . it is universal for a family to tidy its home before hosting a friends' gathering. Does a Western man not tuck those pairs of his smelly socks under the sofa before opening the door to let in a visitor? We have been sincere in anticipation of the arrival of guests but find that there are so many people in this world who are hostile to us."

Along the blocks of Tuan Jie Hu, people said they don't feel constrained to play a direct role in guiding public perceptions of the Olympics. Instead, they see themselves as happily swept up in the excitement of a two-week athletic competition. Wang Dan, 24, a store clerk, said there has been a surge in Olympic-related sales of miniature Chinese flags, which have been seen adorning apartment doorways and the dashboards of private cars. A shopkeeper who sells casual men's clothes, Li Yang Xin, said he received a special order last week for 90 T-shirts that say, "Go China!" from a company that wants to distribute them to employees.

"Don't Chinese people always love big celebrations?" said a neighborhood organizer, 54, who gave his surname as Sun.

But in addition to the ebullience, there are fears. Some residents worry about security problems during the Olympics, though they believe the government's full deployment of police and military will help ensure safety. One mother said she thought "some small things" could go wrong, such as a random foreigner displaying a "Save Darfur" sign during the Games, but she did not think minor incidents would seriously affect the government's assessment of the success of the competition.

But some scholars of China do not think the nation's rulers will take lightly any political protests - however isolated or mild - that are broadcast on national and international television. Even worse in the eyes of government, they say, might be a technical glitch during the Olympics' fireworks display, a doping scandal involving a Chinese athlete, or even a lack of bright blue skies - given the government's intense efforts to reduce air pollution through temporary factory shutdowns and limits on using vehicles. Aimin Yan, a Boston University business professor who runs US-China student exchange programs, said government officials remain prickly about issues of "face," which he said relate to the traditional concept of achieving status through public displays of competence.

"This government doesn't like surprises," said William Kirby, director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard.

If officials care a lot about gaining, and worry about losing, face, it is perhaps fitting that a climactic moment during the Olympic fireworks display is expected to be the darkened sky lit up by 2008 smiling faces.

The fear of being misunderstood by foreigners was also a theme heard repeatedly in the weeks before the Olympics by Wei-Ming Tu, a Harvard professor of Chinese philosophy who was in Beijing this summer. He said people talked about how "they want modernization but deeply rooted in Chinese culture."

"There's a new quest for a Chinese cultural identity," he said. "People are interested in sending this message to the outside world."

In the business district of Tuan Jie Hu neighborhood, some residents laugh about the Olympic hoopla, including some couples choosing to marry on 8/8/08 or people insisting on sending special notes to loved ones that will bear the post office stamp of that date. Others are eagerly tracking the debut of their favorite basketball, soccer, volleyball, or table tennis players.

Xiang, who used to work in the plastic factory, said he is not a sports lover, and probably will only occasionally check the television to see how China is doing in the medal count. He believes the Olympics is a big moment for China, but also a reminder that the country still has a long way to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor.

"If even more ordinary people can see an improvement in their lives," he said, "that will be the real 'gold medal' for China."

Patricia Wen can be reached at

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