Monday, August 11, 2008

Going Global, Going Local

BEIJING - Earlier today, during an Olympic program on China Central Television (CCTV), the host asked Li Yifei, one of the advisors to China’s Olympic Committee, what the Games will mean for China in the near future.

“I think overall it will be excellent,” said Li, going on to mention that ever since China won the right to host the Games in 2001 she has been seeing new streets and transportation infrastructure popping up every month. Moreover, to hold Olympic competitions, many of Beijing’s universities have built new facilities. “Now Chinese students will have better venues to play basketball than before,” she continued.

What Li was talking about, of course, was the act to derive local meanings and benefits from a very international event. Beyond the great building projects, the process of preparing for and hosting the Olympics has given Beijing the chance to condition its own city settings and social norms and living habits—a way to, in the words of the Chinese government’s own propaganda, inject and emphasize “civility” in the city.

Now, street signs that instruct people not to spit on sidewalk in a country where spitting seems to be a national habit. At subway stations, yellow arrows indicate where passengers should form a line to board trains and where space should be left for people getting off trains. Just last week, as one impatient Beijinger cut to the front of the line to buy subway tickets, another local Chinese—noticing a foreign visitor was also in line to buy tickets—barked disapprovingly, telling the cutter to “line up!”

Last summer, during a lunch time visit to a pizza joint on Beijing’s Tsinghua University campus—widely known as China’s MIT for its focus on engineering and technological studies—I saw a sign above a urinal that read: taking a step forward is to make a great stride for civilization.

For the sake of a successful Olympics, Beijing residents are told to watch their living habits in order to impress foreign visitors. And in doing so, the government hopes to use the Games as a justification and an opportunity to further condition China’s capital into becoming one of the world’s great cities.

But will such efforts work? As in many things, one can always evaluate current attempts by thinking about past undertakings. The closest example that comes to mind is McDonald’s experience in Hong Kong in mid-1970s.

Back then, Hong Kong was not yet the international financial center that it is today. In the 1970s, the city was just beginning to figure out ways to absorb the large numbers of refugees who escaped the political revolutions on mainland China. (The city’s population jumped to around four million in the early 1970s from 600,000 at the end of World War II).

Many of these refugees never intended to stay; they considered Hong Kong as a mere midway stop, either waiting for their further moves to the West or as a holding place until political stability returned to mainland China. No one considered Hong Kong “home,” and that had a great effect on social behaviors. Quite simply, Hong Kong was a chaotic city.

But when McDonald’s arrived in 1975 as the city experienced great economic growth, the fast food chain ushered in a new concept for the city: the queue. Before then, the idea of lining up at banks or restaurants never existed, and crowds often pushed themselves onto buses, boats, and buildings without regard for common courtesy or discipline.

As James Watson, an American scholar on Hong Kong, wrote a decade ago, the arrival of McDonald’s did not gobble up local culture in the former colony. Rather, the locals used it effectively in order to facilitate their own agendas and local purposes. Like the Olympics in Beijing, McDonald’s played a part in conditioning Hong Kong into a “civil” cosmopolitan city that it is today. And residents act accordingly.

And so thirty years later, over the past few days during the Games, I have heard many foreign visitors remarking on the extent to which Beijing has become an “international city.” When these visitors say “international,” they mean more locals are speaking English; they mean seeing more Western franchises such as Starbucks, McDonalds, and even Cold Stone Creamery; and they also mean the many shiny new shopping centers populated with Puma and Nike stores.

And at the bottom of it all, they mean a city with “Olympic” conditioning—meaning, of course, that Beijing is more like the familiar cities of New York, London, Paris, or San Francisco, and less like what they imagine to be “China.” These visitors ask: with all the changes ushered in by the Games, has China become fully Westernized or globalized or, heaven forbid, Americanized?

Local focus here, of course, is strong enough to stand on its own. As much as the Olympics is an international event, Beijing has certainly made some effective local uses out of it. And that was exactly what Li Yifei had in mind when she appeared on China Central Television.

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