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The Transformation of the Beijing Olympics from National Pride into Beijing Anxiety

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When Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics on July 13, 2007, there was a genuine sense of enthusiasm nationwide. Beijing residents poured onto the street to celebrate. People cheerfully walked toward the Tiananmen Square. They greeted and hugged strangers. Some even shed tears of happiness. In Wangfujing, the most popular shopping area in Beijing, people were waving banners stating "Beijing succeeded" and "Beijing won." Spectacular display of fireworks reddened the sky in Beijing. People shouted, "Long live Beijing, long live China," "cheers, China," "we succeeded," and "we won." President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji, and other important state leaders including Li Ruihuan, Hu Jintao and Wei Jianxing celebrated the success at the China Millennium Monument. College students cheerfully waved a Chinese national flag. Chinese celebrities, athletes, and officials were also reported in Chinese media as expressing their happiness. Overseas Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong, France, Turkey, Toronto and many other places sent congratulatory messages to Beijing. Hong Kong citizens were reported to state, "Our mother country won. We won." The bidding success was hailed as the fulfillment of the Chinese dream of a century.

However, just one month before the start of the Beijing Olympics, a sense of anxiety can be felt almost everywhere from the leadership to workers who are directly involved in the Beijing Olympics. Since early this year, a new wartime command system (Zhanshi zhihui tixi) has been established to ensure smooth administration and efficient material support. The new command system has three levels: the central level, the Beijing Municipal level, and the competition sites, with Xi Jinping, member of the Politibureau and vice Chairman of China, Liu Qi, member of the Politibureau, party secretary of the Beijing Municipal Commission and chairman of BOCOG, and directors of various Games sites, functioning as the chief commanders at the three levels. The direct involvement of the central Government and the Beijing Municipal Government indicates that the status of the Beijing Olympic Games has been further raised to ensure and societal support.

Indeed, Hu Jintao, at many occasions stressed the importance of hosting a successful Olympics in Beijing. To call the system the "wartime command system" indicates that the Chinese government treats the Olympics as a war that must be won. Various training sessions have been held for professionals and workers, including but not limited to the staff who are working at BOCOG and the Olympic Games sites, taxi drivers, volunteers, airport staff, security guards, and journalists. The three-level command system also marginalizes the role of BOCOG in directing and managing the Beijing Olympics. Indeed, BOCOG now has to work with the eleven departments set up by the Beijing Municipal Government whenever it intends to issues orders to various Games sites.
At the same time, a general sense of anxiety can be felt by talking with Taxi drivers in Beijing, who have often experienced dozens of training sessions and taken several tests in the past few years. Because taxi drivers are considered working in the "window industry" (chuangkou hangye), there are special requirements for them in terms of their oral English skills and their appearances during the Games. Taxi drivers in Beijing will be dressed in the same new uniforms (now, they are dressed in uniforms, but different companies have different uniforms). There are also requirements about their personal appearances as being clean and presentable. For example, they cannot have long hair, but they should not be bald either. They should shave every day or at least every other day. Such requirements may sound funny, but they indicate that various departments that are involved in the Beijing Olympics take the Games very seriously. A common saying is that "we will feel relaxed after the Games are over" (Kaiwan jiu tashi le). The sense of anxiety also comes from "not doing things wrong" (bie chu cuo). The BOCOG has spent a lot of time and resources educating the staff and the general public about what the Olympics Games are and how they should be hosted in China. Athens and Sydney are constant references for the Beijing Olympics.

The war the Chinese government is fighting can be viewed from several different perspectives. On one hand, any event of such a scale can attract terrorist attacks. The history of the Olympics Games has witnessed such occurrences, including the 1972 Olympics in Munich and the 1996 Games in Atlanta. It is understandable that the Chinese government and Beijing citizens are anxiously waiting for the Games. The Chinese government will deploy a large number of security guards (an bao) around the city. A much stricter security check system will be employed at critical points such as airports, train stations, metro stations, and of course various Olympic sites. Such information is made available to Beijing citizens by Chinese media, and Beijing citizens, who have rarely been exposed to such dangers, naturally feel a sense of anxiety before and during the Games. Many ordinary citizens I talked with also stated that they would try to avoid taking buses, subways or trains to avoid potential terrorist attacks.

The Chinese government is also fighting a media war. The overseas legs of the Olympic torch relay in London, Paris and San Francisco and the subsequent coverage of Western media have made the Chinese government aware that their actions will be more closely scrutinized by international media before and during the Games. The recent policy of the Chinese government is to "treat the media well" (shandai meiti), which means that the Chinese government attempts to treat the media not as an enemy or a friend, but rather to try its best to provide the resources for journalists to finish their reporting tasks. I think foreign journalists are very likely to encounter cooperative Chinese officials, the Beijing Olympic staff, volunteers and Chinese athletes when they come to Beijing to cover the Olympics. Tourists will encounter a high level of hospitality in China. The official policy now is "to treat people from all countries, regardless of whether they come from the third world or industrialized West" with the same level of hospitality.

The Chinese government is also guiding its citizens to fight a war over the Chinese image. Various slogans in Beijing indicate that the government is obsessed with the establishment of "a civilized image" (wenming xingxiang) of China and the Chinese. Various campaigns have been conducted to educate the Chinese not to spit, not to jump into queues when taking buses, and not to boo athletes when Chinese citizens go to Games sites as spectators. Such campaigns are not only related to the efforts of the Chinese government to manage its international reputation, but also related to the deeply-rooted Chinese concept of the "face." There is a general saying in Chinese culture that states "shames of the family should not be publicized to the outsiders" (jiachou bu ke waiyang). In this sense, China is considered a big family that consists of numerous Chinese individuals. Losing face in front of foreigners and world media would be a very serious issue to oneself, his/her relatives and the larger community. Individuals Chinese, to some degree, are very conscious of managing the reputation of China not because they are coached by the government, but because they feel that China, not just the Chinese government, is scrutinized by world media.

Read more HuffPost coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games