Beijing never looks back

Karl Taro Greenfeld was the editor of Time Asia from 2001 to 2004 and is a correspondent for Conde Nast Portfolio. His fourth book, about his autistic brother Noah, will be published next year.

In THE fall of 2005, I moved to Beijing to work on the launch of the Chinese edition of Sports Illustrated. Booming, prosperous China, with an ever-expanding mass media and leisure class, was undergoing a sports-industrial evolution similar to that which the United States had experienced after World War II. The American edition of Sports Illustrated was founded in 1954. Perhaps, if the same sort of cultural shift was underway in China, success might await anyone bold enough to launch a sports weekly in the Middle Kingdom.

The Olympics loomed like a countdown clock rushing every conversation and decision. Aug. 8, 2008, the auspicious 8/8/8 of Chinese numerology, was just three years . . . then two years . . . then 18 months away.

The sense that this Olympics, the first in China, would somehow alter not only sports but also society there was pervasive, encouraging urban planners to re-engineer cities and politicians to enact new laws. Beijing was rapidly changing -- I had long found the city confusing, but now it seemed even more bewildering, as 10,000 construction cranes seemed to have spawned 100,000, while those few neighborhoods I barely knew my way around were being destroyed, their citizens uprooted to distant suburbs, all in the name of 8/8/8.

In "The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed" (Walker: 356 pp., $25.99), longtime resident Michael Meyer eloquently portrays the madness of the city during this period. I recall seeing everywhere a Chinese character I couldn't read, and when I asked an interpreter what it was, I was told it meant, "construction." Meyer uses the more accurate translation of chai -- "raze" -- to describe the character that was becoming ubiquitous in the city and portended imminent destruction. "It was brushed on condemned homes in ghostly white strokes and circled," he writes. "It just appeared overnight, like a gang tag, or the work of a specter. The Hand."

Meyer uses this chilling and effective device to describe the ineluctable march of progress, 8/8/8-style; there was virtually no legal way to fight the Hand after it appeared. Accompanied by the slogan "New Beijing, New Olympics," hundreds of thousands of hutongs -- old courtyard homes subdivided to make room for several families -- were destroyed. Ostensibly, this was done so foreigners would garner a better impression of Beijing, but the real beneficiaries, Meyer points out, were real estate developers and party officials, the sinister cabal making up the Hand, who profited by building commercial and higher-end residential buildings. Eventually, 3 million people would be displaced and $200 billion spent in reconstruction -- more, Pico Iyer has noted, than China spent on rural healthcare in 2006.


A prism on society

Hosting THE Olympic games has traditionally been a way of legitimizing -- even temporarily -- a troublesome regime. Think about Nazi Germany in 1936, as well as Beijing in 2008. In China, the awarding of the Games was a cause for celebration, and pretty much a guarantee that China would not precipitate any international incidents, especially in regard to Taiwan, until 8/8/8. Concern about losing the Games had actually been a factor in letting World Health Organization inspectors into the country during SARS and avian influenza outbreaks. (To ensure another four years of exemplary behavior, I would suggest awarding China a World Cup.)

Many Chinese were rightly proud. Indeed, as Xu Guoqi points out in the timely but slightly turgid "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008" (Harvard University Press: 378 pp., $29.95), the evolution of sport in China has been a greater indication of national progress, one could argue, than the tons of steel exported or megawatts of electricity produced. If, during the early and middle 20th century, China's debasements at the hands of colonialist Western powers and neighboring, fascist Japan had caused nationalists and communists alike to urge the embrace of physical fitness and Western sport, the frequent international sporting triumphs of a new generation of Chinese athletes has put China, in the minds of many citizens, back in the forefront of nations.

Of course, what allowed Sports Illustrated in the United States -- for a while anyway -- to transcend sports were those particular American athletes (Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith and John Carlos) who made political and iconoclastic stands and, in so doing, forced those who wrote about sports to also write about the larger world. This made sports a prism on society, at least until corporate interests rushed in and athletes' salaries rose to the point that few were willing to express anything more than a soft-drink preference.

In China today, Xu writes in "Olympic Dreams," athletes, like most members of society, stay away from politics. Corporate and state interests are already sufficiently invested in the Chinese sports boom that no athlete dares buck the system and therefore emerge as a true iconoclastic hero. (One who tried to go his own way and ignore the dictates of the Chinese sports machine, basketball star Wang Zhizhi, became a national pariah and, for a time, was a virtual exile.) In this sense, China has more than caught up with the U.S., where star athletes have become bland, docile shillers for Nike and Adidas.

Of course, the economic benefits of the Olympics are not exclusive to China; in fact, if the number of new books on China is any indication, American publishers, like Beijing real estate developers, have decided that Olympics+China=$$$. Cookbooks, business books, political books, poetry, books about Chinese food and, of course, travel books . . . all have poured out in a torrent. "Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation" (Broadway: 384 pp., $22.95) by J. Maarten Troost, is typical of the tone. "It's a complicated country," Troost writes at one point, "full of complicated people." He observes that there are many people, much pollution and that if you are not careful you might end up eating sheep's brain.


Missing Sacramento

YET TROOST'S journey, from Shanghai to Lhasa, Hong Kong to Harbin, ultimately does get somewhere when he captures the pathos of too many Chinese mega-cities. China now has perhaps 100 cities with more than a million in population. After a while, the sameness of these rapidly industrializing and modernizing ghost towns (it's almost 8/8/8, people, time to tear down and rebuild!), of the drab downtowns with their dusty business hotels, gritty air and impatient drivers, can make one pine for Sacramento, where Troost is from.

Reading "Lost on Planet China," I realized I am more like Troost than like a veteran China hand such as Meyer, which is why Meyer's book, ultimately, is so much more rewarding. He lived it while so many of us were only passing through.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World