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An Olympics makeover: China stashes the toxic Barbies

By Sharon Schmickle | Friday, Feb. 8, 2008 When it comes to image, 2007 was a lousy year for China’s image — marred by everything from toxic Barbie dolls to alleged indifference over Darfur’s violence.

Beijing smog
MinnPost photo
Morning smog obscures the skyline of Xi’an, as it does in other cities across China.

Slide show: China’s Three Gorges

From a Minnesota perspective, 2007 was a terrible year for China’s image — marred by everything from toxic Barbie dolls to alleged indifference over Darfur’s violence.

But a far different China is coming to your TV screen this year as Beijing gears up to host the Olympics in August.

You can prepare yourself mentally by erasing any images your mind may have harbored from the Cold War days when hordes of hungry peasants crowded dingy Beijing streets in Communist-drab outfits.

In their place, sketch boldly modern office towers … girls sporting fashion boots and knock-off Versace bags… traffic jams with the occasional Jaguar idling alongside new SUVs and older sedans.

Which China is the real China? All of them are. Many of China’s 1.3 billion people still are poor and struggling, especially in rural areas. China also is rife with allegations of human rights abuses and corruption that breeds shoddy manufacturing.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the vibrant, prosperous backdrop you will see during the games as so much Olympic packaging.

China has prepared for two decades for this moment. And now that vast and ambitious nation is at a pivotal point, said Douglas Hartmann, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied social change as it relates to the Olympics and other major cultural events.

“This is China’s moment of entry onto the world stage, and they are entirely aware of that,” said Hartmann, who also has travelled in China. “All societies that host the games do similar things, but the timing is unique for China.”

Bird’s nest to cloud blasting
Everywhere in Beijing, you see signs of the importance China places on the image it will project next summer.

Billions of dollars have gone into Olympic venues, some in radical, modern designs such as the stadium known as the “bird’s nest” for its interlacing steel beams. The aquatics center, given the nickname “water cube,” is box shaped with a steel skeleton sheathed in a bluish plastic membrane that gives the appearance of bubbling water.

Bird's Nest
MinnPost photo
Workers planting trees near the new Olympic stadium, unofficially dubbed the “Bird’s Nest,” in Beijing.

Even the weather service got an upgrade with new high-tech equipment — not only for spot-on forecasts but also for manipulating clouds in case rain threatens the opening ceremony. Long skilled at seeding clouds to induce rain, Chinese scientists have been practicing a reverse strategy, shooting chemicals or dry ice into clouds to blast them away.

All of Beijing is a construction zone. Roads have been widened and shabby houses knocked down. What is left of the run-down but charming hutong districts — narrow alleys lined by aged houses and courtyards — is getting new utilities, bricks and paint.

Then and now
Weiming Lu tells a personal story to illustrate how far and how fast China has come to reach this point. Lu fled China during the Communist takeover in 1949 and eventually settled in the Twin Cities where he became prominent in city planning and historic preservation.

Over the years of tight Communist control, Lu believed he never would see China again. To his delight, he was invited in 1979 to join one of the first U.S. delegations to advise China on planning.

The Beijing greeting Lu that year was a perfect reflection of the image you’re supposed to erase. Almost everyone travelled by bicycle, and food was so scarce that a ration card was a must at restaurants.

One day, Lu took a taxi to visit an uncle he hadn’t seen since childhood.

The uncle, a radiologist, lived in a humble hutong home with an outdoor toilet. His wife had committed suicide after she came under government pressure to reveal information about her family, Lu said.

“Whenever we talked about sensitive subjects, my uncle got very nervous,” Lu said. “He would look out a window to make sure no one was hiding outside.”

Still, they talked into the night, making up for lost years.

“I stayed too late,” Lu said. “It was 10 o’clock, and no taxis ran that late on the streets.”

MinnPost photo
Workers adding the Olympic design to landscaping near Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s vast and controversial public plaza.

The uncle summoned Lu’s cousin. Her bicycle would serve as taxi.

With Lu at her the back, she peddled dark, empty streets. At the Forbidden City, they saw shadowy figures of soldiers and held their breath. No problem. They made it to the hotel without incident.

In 2001, on one of Lu’s many return visits, the same cousin arranged to pick him up again. She arrived at his hotel wearing a smart business suit in place of her drab trousers and shirt. They loaded Lu’s luggage into her new Toyota Camry and threaded through a maze of cars and buses on a well-lit street.

Another cousin, a mechanical engineer, had joined the Communist Party. It was a business decision, like joining a Chamber of Commerce in the United States.

And Starbucks had opened a shop in the Forbidden City where two dynasties of Chinese emperors had once lived.

“Every time I went back, it was incredible how much the city had changed in one or two years,” said Lu, who recently has helped China plan for the Olympic venues.

Indeed, China has dazzled the world with its stunning rise to a modern economy and GDP growth topping 10 percent in each of the past five years. Minnesota companies and political leaders are among the throngs rushing to participate. 

That Starbucks in the Forbidden City may have been too much. Amid controversy, the shop closed last summer. But the total two-way trade between China and the United States has grown more than 10-fold since 1992.

Along with trade came odd cultural twists as the world’s oldest civilization met modernity.

Hutong construction
MinnPost photo
What’s left of Beijing’s historic hutong districts are getting an upgrade, as is the rest of the city.

Stroll the streets of historic Xi’an, and you find a new Wal-Mart store where a large plaque tells the history of the Arkansas-based chain. Not far away, you can board a bus and ride to a far different history lesson — to the site where archeologists uncovered terracotta warriors that a Qin dynasty emperor had built before the time of Christ.

Slip into a bar near Beijing’s treasured Beihai Park, and you find Tina Turner on the sound system, Bob Marley posters on the wall and Irish beer on the menu. But the toilet is classic Third World — small and smelly. “No Poop Please,” says a sign on the wall.

Not keeping pace
Despite China’s meteoric rise to world-class standing, its image remains fragile on several fronts.

One vulnerable point is eye-burning, throat-chapping smog. Of 10 cities on Earth with the dirtiest air, seven are in China. Respiratory and heart diseases related to air pollution are the nation’s leading causes of death.

The Chinese government is racing to curb the pollution before athletes arrive this summer. Observers predict the government will sideline vehicles and shut down factories.

Another blemish comes from tainted made-in-China pet food, toothpaste, fish, prescription drugs and toys. In the race from the old China to the modern-day marvel, corrupt players tagged along, cutting corners in their manufacturing processes. What didn’t keep pace was China’s regulatory system. 

“This has created a situation where businesses, faced with mounting competition and poor oversight, will be willing to take drastic measures to increase profit margins, often at the expense of consumer safety,” said the U.S. State Dept. in a recent report on China. “The Chinese Government recognizes the severity of the problem, recently concluding that up to 20% of the country’s products are substandard or tainted.”

Last August, the government declared “special war” on makers of fake and substandard goods. Now experts are waiting to see whether the new image-conscious China will prevail over the old order where corrupt local leaders and bureaucrats routinely ignored edicts from the top.

Yet another sensitive subject is human rights in general and Darfur in particular. Advocates for victims of the violence in that Sudanese region have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. They say China hasn’t cooperated with Uuited Nations efforts to convince the Sudanese government to accept stronger peacekeeping forces, the Washington Post reported.

China counts on resources-rich Sudan for trade in oil, weapons and other products. And Chinese companies were prime targets Minnesota groups cited when they lobbied for a law, enacted last year, requiring the State Investment Board to divest any holdings in companies doing business in Sudan.

China rejects the criticism.

“Some NGO’s and Western media organizations exaggerate the reality and deliberately play up the Darfur crisis, making it more difficult to resolve the conflict,” said China’s former ambassador to Sudan in an opinion article in the English-language China Daily.

The upshot is that China’s image remains loaded with contradictions as it stands ready for its coming-out moment. 

Every host of the games wants the stage it sets to shape a lasting impression, said Hartmann, the Minnesota professor.

“In China’s case, it’s almost impossible to predict what the lasting impression will be,” he said. 

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com. 

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Monday: Why a boycott didn’t work