Beijing a city transformed a decade after landmark Olympics

Beijing Letter: the 2008 games left a mixed legacy for the residents of the Chinese capital

Chinese visitors congregate beside the National Stadium, also known as The Bird’s Nest, at the Beijing Olympic Park in Beijing,  on Tuesday. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

Chinese visitors congregate beside the National Stadium, also known as The Bird’s Nest, at the Beijing Olympic Park in Beijing, on Tuesday. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

 

The weather in Beijing is less polluted than it was 10 years ago before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, but the boiling hot city over which the stormy August clouds look down has been transformed in the 10 years since that spectacular event.

The ruling Communist Party spent billions of yuan to ensure a pristine picture of China was transmitted to the world on the highly auspicious eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the new century.

Ten years after the dazzling choreography of the opening ceremony in the National Stadium – aka the Bird’s Nest – the Olympic venues have not thrived. Most are at best underused and at worse abandoned.

But the Olympics were really only a staging post in a much more fundamental reshaping of the Chinese capital.

Yes, spitting was frowned upon and the populace encouraged to put on a smile, but the real story was the capital’s metamorphosis, the shocking demolition of traditional hutong laneways and courtyard houses to make way for giant apartment blocks, new subway lines, airports and overpass highways.

Licence plate lottery

Life goes on. Lily (32), a project manager for a translation firm, finds it harder to get an apartment than it was 10 years ago, or to get a car or even a licence plate – rules to alleviate pollution mean anyone who wants to buy a new car has to apply for a licence plate lottery.

She finished college 10 years ago, right before the Olympics, in Yanjiao, a satellite town about 90 minutes by bus from Beijing, which became popular as a place to live as rents were lower.

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“Everything is changing here so fast – what has not changed? I remember during these past 10 years how when I travelled from Yanjiao to Beijing, I could see the smog before reaching the city. I think the air quality now is definitely better, but I’m not sure how long this will last. Some years it is good but some years bad,” she says.

“The price of rents is going crazy. I used to pay 2,000 yuan (€252) for a room near the east fourth ring road but now I am paying 3,000 yuan for a room almost at the east sixth ring road. I am paying more but have to move further out,” she says.

Migrant workers

The city’s population burgeoned, particularly with the sharp increase in migrant workers who came to the capital to build the megalopolis that Beijing is today. The population is currently 22 million, five million more than in 2008.

That has led to tensions between the laobaixing (original residents) and some waidiren (migrant workers). Some of the people who have moved to the capital have now become middle-class, even joined the ranks of the newly rich. “The changes in Beijing have not always been good for the migrant workers but also not positive for the Beijingers,” said Lily.

The destruction of areas of the city where migrant workers live has continued under president Xi Jinping as the city’s renovation continues.

Zhang Tian (37), who works for a financial software firm, believes both salaries and costs have jumped since the games.

“We get paid more but at the same time we have to pay a higher price for our daily necessities. The air quality is getting better gradually, and maybe it’s possible we will have a more beautiful sky during our lifetime. At the same time, there are still a lot of people in this city, that certainly hasn’t changed in 10 years,” says Zhang.

Reform

The Olympics capped the end of three decades of opening up and reform. In the intervening decade, China’s international role has become more significant. It is now the world’s second biggest economy, helping prop up the global economy after the financial crisis that struck a year after the games.

“China’s international reputation right now is where it should be. I don’t think it’s improved, it’s just been restored to where it used to be,” said Zhang.

Fu He, who works for a technology company, believes China is better known after the Olympics, though he’s not sure if the country’s international reputation has changed all that much. It would take more than the Olympics to change a country’s reputation.

Confidence boost

While he also feels the city remains very congested and grumbles about the rise in property prices, generally he is positive. The Olympics gave people a confidence boost in the city.

“We can buy whatever we want and we can eat whatever we want to eat. But it is getting more expensive. Public transport is better because of subway construction, although the roads are more congested. But the general sports culture is better. Things are better,” he says.

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