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Tom Scocca

The author of Beijing Welcomes You talks about the 2008 Olympics, Tibet, and smelling (and seeing) the air

Photo: Tony Millionaire, License: N/A

Tony Millionaire


Tom Scocca reads from and signs Beijing Welcomes You

Atomic Books, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m.

For more information, visit atomicbooks.com

Tom Scocca brings up an arresting fact on the very first page of his new book, Beijing Welcomes You (Riverhead). China’s population is generally described as 1 billion, but it is, in fact, 1.3 billion. And the insignificant-seeming 0.3 billion, rounded off for convenience, constitutes a number of Chinese citizens roughly equal to the entire population of the United States. This nugget of information conveys both the unfathomable scale of the country and the misapprehension that many Westerners still hold toward an emerging superpower. A Baltimore native and former City Paper staffer who’s now managing editor of the sports web site Deadspin, Scocca landed in Beijing in 2004 and found a city preparing for its role as host of the 2008 Olympic games, and doing so on a suitably massive scale. Beijing Welcomes You is an account of those preparations, but it is a book about neither development nor sports, really. What emerges most clearly is a gimlet-eyed, intimate, often amusing portrait of what the book’s subtitle dubs “the capital city of the future,” tracking life for the city’s 20 million residents—including, for a time, Scocca and his growing family—as they navigate traffic, construction, bureaucracy, and smog. There are also scorpions for lunch, rainmaking, and kind of a lot of cheerleading (by cheerleaders, not by the author). In advance of an Aug. 5 reading at Atomic Books, he spoke with City Paper from his office in New York, a conversation edited and condensed here.

City Paper: You first came to Beijing because your wife was working there. When did your visits there turn into a book?

Tom Scocca: At first I was just going over to see what it was like, and seeing this city that was changing so quickly, as all of China was changing. In the course of extended visits through 2004 and 2005, I realized that the story of what was going on in Beijing, this transformation to put on a show of what the new China was all about on the occasion of the Olympics in 2008, this process was sort of a piece of the story of 21st-century China as a world power that was going to be possible to witness, and it could sort of be comprehensible to a reporter, or I hoped it would be.

It was already an inherently interesting thing that sparked curiosity, but then to see the pace of change that was going on there . . . the sidewalk you walked on would literally disappear from one day to the next. Brand-new buildings would be gutted and turned into newer buildings. In every direction there were cranes building something. This whole sense of really rapid change and transformation, it was a rare opportunity and it made me want to write about the city.

CP: The book focuses on the preparations for the Olympics, but it also makes clear that Beijing was a palimpsest that had been made and remade over and over again, and that that process is ongoing.

TS: Right. There’s a long history of construction and reconstruction of Beijing. When Marco Polo got there, by his account they had just abandoned the old city and built a new city next to it, because Kublai Kahn’s astrologer told him to do that. Historically it’s been a site of political control and conquest, and the new people taking over the country wanted to remake that city in their image. . . .

The whole challenge of writing about Beijing is that it is such a moving target. The city is constantly being altered. So the thing about the Olympic preparations is that there was a performative aspect to it. It was designed as a sort of self-contained episode in the history, in which Beijing was officially transforming itself toward a particular goal—to being a major, welcoming international destination by Aug. 8th [2008]. So by seeing how this particular story of change played out, especially because it was quite intentionally meant as a showcase—to announce China’s arrival as a full-fledged, first-rate world power—that helped give this otherwise unceasing process of change a little focus.

I mean, August 2008 was a rare moment when cranes weren’t moving all over the city—they actually suspended construction for the games. And when you’re talking about construction in Beijing, the area of active construction during the city during the Olympic lead-up was half again as large as Manhattan.

CP: I think many Americans see China as a nation of people struggling under a totalitarian yoke, yearning for democracy. But that’s not the impression the book leaves.

TS: The first thing you have to keep in mind is the immensity of the country. The sheer project of holding together a country that big with that many people has not lent itself to great amounts of democracy or a pleasant standard of living for the average person. Given the choice, most people would prefer not to be a Chinese peasant at any point in Chinese history. Material conditions of life are better now than they have been and there is a sense that things are changing.

One of the animating concerns behind the book is this question of to what extent liberalization and human rights are the inevitable companion of economic progress, which is the sort of belief that people in the U.S. like to have—prosperity brings democracy. China has tried to decouple those things, and has so far, to a great extent, done that. The Communist Party is not particularly communist, but it’s still very much in a position of unchallenged political authority.

A lot of the conversation around Beijing hosting the Olympics had to do with whether or not the country was fit to host the Olympics given its spotty record on political freedom and human rights. That line of conversation overestimates the Olympics as an engine of liberalization and human rights. You wanna talk about a government that slaughtered student protestors, look no further than Mexico City in 1968, when the armed forces violently swept away protests from a public square just a few weeks before the Olympics, specifically for the purpose of pacifying things, to get the city under control for the Olympics. China has a history of not tolerating demonstration, but given the actual history of the Olympics, it’s not clear why that would disqualify it from hosting the games.

In China, you had the absurd situation that after Beijing announced that there would be protest zones available, the people who applied to protest in the protest zones were arrested. And the [International Olympic Committee] decided not to make a stink about that and let the show go on. China’s public-security people probably guessed that that would be the case, and they guessed correctly.

CP: I remember watching the opening ceremonies on TV and being dazzled and moved and also awed—in the classic, kinda scary sense—by all those people deployed in unison to create such grand effects. But where I was watching it, someone also made a joke that if one of the drummers missed a stroke, his whole family would probably wind up in prison.

TS: Certainly the opening ceremony was a text open to multiple interpretations. It was a show of people working together to produce unbelievable visual effects, but it was also a situation in which human beings were literally turned into pixels in a video display, completely subordinated into the larger project. And it’s not wrong to read it both ways. As to the question of being impressed by the grandeur or scared by the grandeur, historically the process of creating grandeur has not been the nicest to the people involved. I mean, the pyramids were not built by popular vote. Giant public works tend to be the work of people who have top-down authority, be it [New York City public works czar] Robert Moses or the government in Beijing.

One thing that was impressive about Beijing, and about China, is there was this sense of optimism behind the development. People do believe that things can be different. Young people would come to Beijing to start up a business or be an artist. There was this sense that you could become something and do something and make things different for yourself. And there was a sense that the city was really going to change, and it did.

Another reason why the Olympics were more significant than just the usual Olympic games was, where other cities do a lot of gratuitous Olympic-themed development and build useless sports facilities that are just gonna sit there when it’s over, Beijing used this as an occasion to focus and put a timetable to the redevelopment that the city was going to do anyway, so you had this huge expansion of the subway system. You had the construction of a new giant airport terminal. You also had horrifying destruction of whole neighborhoods in the name of development, but the point is that this whole transformation of the city was going on anyway, and the Olympics just gave it a focus.

CP: You devote a few paragraphs to the issue of the Chinese annexing of Tibet, and how those on both sides of that issue are making too much of it.

TS: Well, essentially what I argue in that passage is that people on both sides of the Tibet issue have overinflated it in terms of how much the issue means when you’re talking about the overall policy of a country of 1.3 billion people.

The point of comparison that the Chinese sometimes use is to the U.S. and its relationship with Native Americans. The broad outlines . . . there’s a lot in common. China has run a railroad out to open it up more and transport people from the Han Chinese east into the Western interior. They’re encouraging people to settle in large numbers, overwhelming the indigenous culture, which is really what we did on the Great Plains.

What happens when the U.S. has been confronted with that kind of argument, the answer is often just because we’ve done bad things in the past doesn’t mean [other] people should do bad things. Which is fine, but we’re not giving back the Dakotas. Even though we feel bad about it, and we would never do such a bad thing today, we’re still profiting from it. A similar thing applies to the whole pollution question. We had our era when we made ourselves rich by polluting our air, and when we got rich enough we stopped doing it. China argues that it’s still passing through that stage.

There’s also the fact that even if you deplore the situation in Tibet, there are plenty of other large-scale human-rights questions there, and it’s a little bit weird that Tibet is a dominant point of protest. There’s also the case of the Uighurs, who are also in China’s west, who also are not totally happy being incorporated into the People’s Republic of China, who also have separatist inclinations, whose culture is also being swamped by settlement by the majority culture, whose religious exercise is also being interfered with by the authorities. But for whatever reason, the Uighurs don’t get concerts. The Uighurs are Muslims, and perhaps Muslim separatists have less appeal to the West than Tibetan Buddhist separatists do, so the Uighurs are at a disadvantage there.

CP: Speaking of pollution, I can’t think of another book about a particular city that spends as much time discussing and describing the air quality.

TS: Well, A Year in Provence talked about food a lot, right? It is the salient feature. I smelled the air the first time my plane ever landed in Beijing, this burning smell, and I kept on smelling the air throughout. And seeing the air.

The pollution there is really just staggering and apocalyptic. It is beyond anything that you can imagine if you just lived in the U.S. If you look outside on a really filthy Baltimore summer day, when the air is thick and white, that is a day that your heart would lift if you saw that in Beijing.

The pollution in Beijing is thick, gray, smoky. There are days where it’s as if the sun is going down a few hours earlier than it is, or there are days that look like rainy days—you look outside and it’s just gray, it looks like heavy clouds have rolled in and it should be raining. But it’s dry, and it’s not going to rain, because that’s not clouds, it’s just pollution.

CP: Can you explain “the thing about the Chinese is . . .”?

TS: You want to go into a foreign country with an open mind, and you want to avoid the tendency to generalize like some 19th-century explorer saying how it is with these people. But what I realized was that there’s a strong cultural fixation on expressing what it means to be Chinese and saying what China is like. So people want to tell you this, what Chinese people are like.

There’s this ongoing resort to these collective, essentialist generalizations. And the thing is, when you’re exposed to enough of them, you realize that these are often wildly contradictory. Chinese people are very, very polite, or Chinese people are very, very rude. You will be told this by Chinese people depending on whether an individual Chinese person has just been polite or rude to you. They are very open. They are very guarded. They care only about practical things. They care very much about symbolic things.

I think that they want to know what you think of China as China. When I was going to various official events and unveilings, there was this ritual where at some point the Chinese press pack would turn on the Western reporters present and want to interview you about what you thought about what you’d just seen. To which I figured out that probably the safe and truthful and accurate reply was just to say that it was “impressive,” because it was almost always impressive, whether it was impressively beautiful or impressively appalling or impressively whatever. And being impressed was a good reaction to have.

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