A 'Civilized' Beijing

On practically every street corner of China's capital, colorful splashes of banners and flyers urge local residents to do his or her part to ensure a 文明 Beijing for the Olympics. Literally meaning civilized, the word--spelled wenming in Roman letters and pronounced WHEN-ming--has a much deeper meaning in the Chinese psyche. It also means polite, sophisticated, modern and cultured. Calling a neighborhood or a fellow citizen wenming is a great compliment.

In the eyes of the Chinese government, the Beijing that is being unveiled for the Olympics represents the pinnacle of a wenming society.

To that end, China has poured $43 billion into elaborate preparations over the past seven years, making it likely to set the record for the most expensive games ever. The Beijing skyline is graced with marvels of engineering created by the top architects in the world. Millions of elegant poplar trees and flowers have been planted; rockets have been shot into the air in an attempt to clear away the smog. Stores stocked with pirated DVDs have been shuttered. Restaurants have been inspected for safety and environmentally controversial dishes like shark fin soup have been erased from menus.

There's even a suggested dress code in Beijing: older women shouldn't wear mini-skirts and men should avoid matching white socks with black shoes.

To critics, however, the image of Beijing that will be beamed to homes around the world is a Potemkin village, a façade to fool foreign visitors. Whether the games should be judged a success, they say, depends more on things like China's efforts to control pollution, the way that it deploys security measures without crossing the line in to paranoia, and how it deals with the media glare and dissent.

In the coming days, the Post's Beijing Bureau will bring you breaking news and analysis on this blog about the challenges China faces during the Olympics. We'll bring you video conversations with some of China's business and cultural leaders, and up-to-the-minute images and sound from Beijing "hot spots" like Tiananmen Square, the public parks designated as protest zones, and, of course, the Olympic-themed parties. Also, for the first time, we'll feature special content in Mandarin Chinese.

Welcome. 欢迎.

--Ariana Eunjung Cha

August 6, 2008; 5:37 PM ET  | Category:  Postmark Beijing
Next: Chinese Press: It's Fog, not Smog


Please email us to report offensive comments.

When I have guests coming, I clean up my room. So, I guess that makes me a Potemkin host?

Is the WAPO suggesting that Beijing should not have cleaned up, or put it's best foot forward? (If Beijing hadn't, we'd be reading about how terrible everything is, and "they could have at least cleaned up.")

Have you ever had one of those guests who is determined to find fault with you, no matter what? Damned if you do, damned if you don't?

The Washington Post seems determined to be one of those guests. I wonder why? (It makes sense to me if my mother or mother-in-law is like that, but a whole newspaper?)

Posted by: PatrickInBeijing | August 7, 2008 9:28 AM

There's a big difference between tidying up a room and burning all evidence of former habitation.

The Chinese government is embarrassed by their own culture; by the fact that people don't queue like they do in Britain; that their standards of hygiene in street markets aren't as extreme as in the U.S. So they unilaterally close down all the food stalls and small businesses. They institute regulations of personal behavior that's unimaginable in the west. The west doesn't understand the supreme value China places on social harmony.

From the Western point of view, the authoritarian, heavy-handed approach is shocking. The west instinctively blames the Chinese government, but that's just a cultural misunderstanding. The government behaves in accordance with Chinese culture.

From the Eastern point of view, the media coverage of the games is shocking. They don't understand that western communication styles are inherently more critical and confrontational. Every piece of reporting needs to have a negative tone at some point in the article, or else it's not serious journalism--it's a "puff piece". Harmony is the antithesis of a free press.

The Chinese are going to be very upset with the "rude" behavior of its guests--journalists, athletes, and tourists. It's an inevitable cultural misunderstanding that will happen, because there is a much larger gulf between East and West than most people appreciate.

Posted by: CraiginZhejiang | August 7, 2008 3:59 PM

Ariana Eunjung Cha, in the name of critics, sets standards for what successful Olympics should be for China. "China's efforts to control pollution, the way that it deploys security measures without crossing the line in to paranoia, and how it deals with the media glare and dissent."

I am sure no matter what, China won't be able to make it. Like "the way that it deploys security measures without crossing the line in to paranoia", how to measure it? By who? - Western politicians or athelets?

The Chinese people want to be a good host, some just don't want to be a good guest, you have nothing to do with this kind of people.

Posted by: YD | August 7, 2008 4:08 PM

some americans are ignorant and always think the US is the greatest thing ever. Wake up, there are other people and nations in the world.

Posted by: Steve | August 7, 2008 4:28 PM

I ask how "civilized" is it for many in the western media to abandon any pretense at journalistic objectivity and who are determined to be highly negative in their coverage of the Olympics in China? The "Washington Post" seems to have been taken over by those with a cold war neo-conservative mentality in its coverage of foreign policy and national security issues.

The coverage of China by "The Washington Post" is about as predictable as the daily topics by Lou Dobbs on his show. "Yellow journalism," in some ways similar to as practiced by Hearst and others a hundred years ago, is thriving amidst much of the contemporary American media.

Posted by: Independent | August 7, 2008 10:08 PM

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