In the heart of China's capital, a sign proclaims "all brands coexist harmoniously" in a new pedestrian mall rising where Beijing's warren...

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In the heart of China’s capital, a sign proclaims “all brands coexist harmoniously” in a new pedestrian mall rising where Beijing’s warren of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyards housed families for thousands of years.

This is where ancient and modern compete. These days, modern is winning, hastened by a construction boom in the name of the Olympics.

No other city offers a better display of the weight of China’s history and its lofty ambitions for the future. Hosting the Olympics is meant to showcase China’s progress on the world stage, transforming itself from a poor and isolated country to an economic superpower in just a few decades. To prove that it measures up to world standards, China has spent more than $40 billion preparing for the Games.

The city gleams with new buildings and stadiums, the products of international design competitions. But some of the development has come at the expense of ordinary residents living in the city center and the cultural heritage they represent.

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“The Olympics are accelerating the tendency of the government to turn the city center over to a very wealthy international class of people,” said Dan Abramson, assistant professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington. “It’s less accessible except by distant commuting to the average person. It’s a symbol of what the social priorities of the state are.”

Beijing, which means “northern capital” in Chinese, was built on a north-south axis, with the Forbidden City in the center and important structures such as Tiananmen Square along the same line. Around that, a series of concentric circles extended farther and farther out as the city swelled to its current population of nearly 17 million, twice that of New York City, with an area larger than the state of Connecticut. The Olympic Green sits on the far northern reach of the axis, between the fourth and fifth ring roads.

Beijing’s transformation began with its rapid economic growth in the 1990s and accelerated once the city was chosen to host the Olympics in 2001. Cutting-edge buildings dot its landscape, from the elaborate Bird’s Nest National Stadium and diaphanous Water Cube Aquatics Center to the China Central Television headquarters. But nearly every neighborhood has had a makeover.

The city has changed so much and so fast that even longtime residents don’t recognize it.

“I go to a part of town I haven’t been in three months and I’m lost,” said Jim McGregor, a businessman and author who has lived in China for 20 years. “There’s a new ring road, new subway, new gardens. They will go through a town and in two months widen all the parks and roads.”

The downside is the whole city has been under construction, he added. “We’ve all been eating dirt for years.”

The Olympic face-lift has also helped push hundreds of thousands of people outside the city core. Nearly half a million households have been relocated by state-initiated redevelopment projects since 1991, the year China decided to make its first, ultimately unsuccessful bid to host the Olympics, Abramson said.

The government aims to reduce inner city population in order to build more commercial buildings and high-end housing, so it has turned large parcels of land over to developers to transform. The centuries-old low-rise homes relied on coal for heating and cooking and lacked running water and sewer service, so new housing has been a welcome change for some.

But the mandatory moves to new high rises miles outside the city center have been met with increasing resistance by others, whose livelihoods depend on proximity to local businesses. Public pride at hosting the Olympics has made that bitter pill easier to swallow.

“It’s really a way the government can do what it was doing before, but do it in a more politically palatable way,” Abramson said.

Such moves could make the government’s goal of creating a “harmonious society” more difficult if they widen the already stark gap between rich and poor.

But for people all over the country, the psychological importance of the Olympics far exceeds any sporting event. National pride rests on the success of the Games.

“If you’re a 20-year old kid in China, your whole life you’ve been hearing about the Olympics — the ability to get it and then what they’re going to do when they get it and what they’re going to build,” McGregor said. “The whole country is constantly involved in activities related to the Olympics, leading up to a crescendo.”

In Beijing, the present and past are intertwined. Nearly a half million athletes, visitors and journalists will descend on the same place where foreign envoys arrived at the Forbidden City three centuries ago to pay tribute to the emperor, considered the ruler of all under heaven. The decline of China’s last dynasty in the 19th century coincided with the West’s rise to global supremacy.

The Chinese hold painful memories of humiliation under Western and Japanese powers, who controlled trade through “treaty ports” along Chinese waterways and quashed anti-foreign movements in Beijing and Tianjin in 1900 during what was known as the Boxer Rebellion.

Back then, China was referred to as the “sick man of Asia,” a national weakness reflected in the physical quality of its people.

Beijing officials have played on this theme to promote nationalism. Hosting the Olympics is meant to symbolize China’s transformation from a weak country to a strong power, marking its new course 100 years later.

The Web site of China’s Olympic Committee says that China’s Olympic intentions date to 1908, when the Tianjin Youth magazine began asking when the country could participate in and host the Games.

The People’s Republic of China first sent athletes to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. China’s bid to host the 2000 Games came less than 10 years later, but in 1993, Beijing was rejected in favor of Sydney. In 2001, Beijing succeeded in its bid.

It remains to be seen whether Beijing can live up to its promises made at that time.

One of the most polluted cities in the world is striving for clean air by shutting down factories in five surrounding provinces and taking at least half of the cars off the road in Beijing.

Beijing is emerging as the authoritarian Games, where control is paramount. Worried about possible protests or violence disrupting the Games, the city has discouraged the large-scale public gatherings around live TV screens in public places that characterized the Sydney Olympics and the World Cup in Europe. Visa policy has tightened to the point that even people doing business in China for years can’t get back in until after the Games.

The beating of two Japanese journalists by police in western China drew an official apology Tuesday, but Beijing also set new obstacles for news outlets wanting to report from Tiananmen Square in the latest sign of trouble for reporters covering the Olympics.

Some of the Olympics construction provides benefits to the future. New subway lines will give residents in far-flung parts of Beijing an easier way in to the city, for example. The drive to clean up the environment could lead to longer term solutions.

Despite all the challenges, such a monumental undertaking in China’s capital is nothing short of the effort that produced the country’s economic revolution.

“In China, you always need a movement, a goal, a story,” McGregor said, “and you always have to have a good propaganda line going up. It’s just been this rising crescendo around the Olympics. You watch, they’ll get the most medals.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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