An Olympic Evaluation

Eric Setzekorn is a graduate student at UC Irvine specializing in military history and is currently finishing an exchange semester with the Beijing University history department. He writes in the China Beat blog:

For foreigners visiting Beijing, especially first-time visitors to China, the Olympic experience was an almost picture-perfect blend of idealized chinoiserie and ultra-modern convenience. Thousands of blue-shirted college volunteers facilitated the tourist hordes’ need to navigate the transportation grid, enter sporting events, and even find good restaurants. The Olympics served as a way to groom thousands of volunteers to become comfortable dealing with foreigners in a confident and knowledgeable manner and become the point of the spear in business and government in the new “Chinese Century.”

However, real progress in terms of language fluency and cross-cultural understanding was slight due to the controlled and directed nature of foreigner to volunteer interaction. Much of the problem stems from the draconian visa requirements that essentially restricted access to upper-class Europeans and Americans on package tours. With an average age in their forties, these visitors were understandably viewed as safer and more commercially lucrative than twenty-something backpackers.

The carefully screened and prepped volunteers who greeted them were selected by rigorous foreign language exams and forced to undergo weeks of full-time training, and so real interaction between visitors and volunteers was stunted by the seldom-deviated-from official guidelines. Any question regarding politics or international relations was either ignored or directed to one of the many volunteers who are party members, easily identified by the small red hammer-and-sickle pins on their shirts.

… In 2001, I felt incredibly fortunate to be in Tiananmen Square when the announcement came that Beijing had won the Olympic games. However, that night my foreign friends and I all wore running shoes because we believed if Beijing did not win the games we should leave the Square as quickly and directly as possible to avoid trouble. At that time, I believed the Olympics would help Beijing become more open, cosmopolitan, cleaner, and a more enjoyable place for both foreigners and Chinese to live. While Beijing has changed incredibly since 2001, the earlier hope that the Beijing Games would have any sort of similar political effect to the 1988 Seoul games has long since evaporated. The events of this August have been exciting and entertaining, but the overall legacy of securit outside airports and surveillance microphones in taxis seem mixed and to this long-time resident of what is one of the world’s great cities, 2008 feels like a missed opportunity.


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