Beijing: Chinatown in Disneyland

Not too much action in Tiananmen these daysThe streets are clean, the people are smiling, the transportation is free and the staff is able and willing to answer any and all questions.  Is this Beijing or Disneyland?

The city cannot be compared to any other city in Mainland China.  All construction has stopped for the games which not only helps eliminate some dust in the air but more importantly cleans up the noise pollution of drills and jack hammers that has become part of daily life in China.

Olympic advertisement sheets cover unfinished buildings throughout the city giving Beijing the appearance of being “new” China’s first completed city.

Beggars are nowhere to be found in Beijing and migrant workers are noticeably missing as most have left the city due to the six week break in construction.

Transportation has been quicker and easier than I have ever experienced in China. The subway is free for all people holding Olympic tickets and there are new lines sprawling throughout the city – constructed with the intent of getting visitors directly to the games.

Taxis are extremely easy and traffic jams are non-existent as half of Beijing’s drivers have been taken off the road for the Olympic period.

Over 100,000 volunteers are scattered throughout the city seemingly on every corner ready to pounce on any foreigner starring blankly at a map. Every group of volunteers seems to have at least one English speaker and they are bending over backwards to help.

Five minutes into a rain delay at a China vs. Korea baseball game the volunteers came running into the stands with thousands of ponchos handing them out to the crowd. The volunteer in my section ran out of ponchos just before he got to me and when I asked him where I could go to get one he took his off and tried to hand it to me.  I had to almost physically put the poncho back on him and run away in order to decline his offer.

Nothing going down at the train station eitherBeyond everything, the most shocking aspect of this whole experience is the amount of people. And by that I mean the surprisingly small amount of people. I took some friends to Tiananmen Square on a Sunday and you could hit a line drive tee shot from one end to the other without hitting a person.

In the seven events I have seen so far I have yet to see a completely full stadium and many of the less popular events like beach volleyball and baseball show sections of empty seats. At night, areas such as Hou Hai and Sanlitun are busy but not overly crowded and no more than they would be on any other summer night.

Since arriving in Beijing on Saturday, I have been struggling to put my finger on what type of vibe the city currently has for the Olympics and what it means for China’s future. The comfort my friends and I feel in Beijing is great but it is not China.

On one level everything is much easier to do and there is less hassle than we are used to. On the other hand, I went looking for a local noodle shop yesterday and after twenty minutes remembered that they were all forced to close for the Olympics.

The Beijing people seem happy in the way that the staff at a five star hotel are happy, but not in the way that a group of old men playing mahjong in a hutong are happy.

They do have a sense of pride in their country and want to show off Beijing to the world, but ironically what they are showing off is not the Beijing that really exists. In a few weeks it is assumed that the factories will open back up, all the cars will be allowed back on the streets, construction will get going again and the city will go back to being less comfortable.

At the same time, noodle shops will reopen, local bars will kick back into gear and the city will seem more authentic and convenient.

The question of development over tradition is obviously a difficult one to answer and an impossible one if it is not your lifestyle that is improving while your tradition is changing. As such, I cannot take a stand one way or the other, but if I am looking at the future of China right now in Beijing I can say that if you close your eyes and imagine a Chinatown in Disneyland you can see the country’s future.