Savoring the Olympic Spotlight
Thousands of Chinese, Many Without Event Tickets, Flock to Beijing to Bask in National Pride

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 4, 2008

BEIJING -- Zhang Guohui has dreamed of taking his wife and daughter to Beijing for seven years, ever since China was given the nod to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

"This shows we are a powerful country," Zhang said. "Why has the United States been able to hold an Olympics three times? Because it is a strong country. Now, we are the host. It is a sign of state power."

Like thousands of Chinese streaming into Beijing, Zhang is here to revel in Olympics glory. He doesn't have tickets to any events and is returning to his native Hunan province before the Games begin. But the sports don't matter much, he said. He simply wanted to bask in the pride of the moment, he said, proud to be Chinese at the opening of an era in which China commands global respect. "If we didn't come, we would regret it," Zhang said.

Much of the world is talking about Beijing's pollution, China's deteriorating human rights protections and the crackdown in Tibet, but the Chinese -- like the Communist Party itself -- see the Games as an affirmation of how far China has come.

More than 500,000 Chinese from all over the country are expected to visit Beijing this month. Although many, like Zhang, do not have tickets to any events, they're delighted to be close to the action and to load up on Olympics merchandise. Zhang's wife, for instance, wore earrings in the shape of one of the Olympic mascots, the red Fuwa character.

The family spent last week touring marvels of modern engineering, such as the city's new stadiums and the icons of its ancient culture, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. "One represents the future, and one represents the past," Zhang said. "And both represent that China is great."

The highlight for Zhang was watching the Chinese flag being raised over Tiananmen Square. He and his family awoke at 2 a.m. to get a good viewing spot for the daily dawn ceremony, which attracts hundreds of Chinese.

Zhang said he gave his 7-year-old daughter two small flags to wave as the soldiers performed the solemn ceremony. He knelt and explained to her the importance of patriotism as symbolized by the flag's five gold stars on its bright red background.

"The large star represents the Communist Party, and the other four stars form a semicircle around it," he told her. "That shows we are unified. We are together."

The giddy excitement of many ordinary Chinese for the chance to sparkle in the global spotlight is palpable, and increases the closer one gets to any Olympic venue.

Last week, Shen Zhiyong, 35, a salesman from the southern city of Guangzhou, twirled his 3-year-old son in a dizzying circle on the plaza in front of the Water Cube, a rectangular building whose walls resemble giant bubbles. Shen erupted in laughter as he swept his arm to take in the expanse of the vista.

"It's a miracle!" Shen exclaimed, snapping photos of his 9-year-old daughter dancing in front of the building, where the aquatic competitions will be held. "The image China will show to the world must be different than what they've heard before."

In Shen's view, China's Communist leaders are guiding a supple society where life for the average person is improving each day. "Our state is stable and is at peace," Shen said. "I can do what I want to do."

Foreigners often focus on the harsh aspects of China's one-party rule, where those who speak out against the government face jail or hard labor. But many Chinese have a strong bond with the party, whose policies have shaped most aspects of their lives. They say it is natural to feel an emotional connection to the Olympics as the fulfillment of a decades-long quest for personal well-being and international respect.

Wang Xueguo felt so strongly that he bought tickets for his siblings and their families to fly to Beijing to join him this month. "I wanted my whole family to share the atmosphere of the Olympics. It symbolizes the unity of the family," said Wang, 42, as he sat in his Beijing restaurant.

Wang's life traces the arc of modern China. He was one of five children raised on a farm in what is now southwestern China's Chongqing municipality. In 1959, before Wang was born, a sibling starved to death during Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, a misguided attempt to forcibly transform China's agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse that ended in disaster. His family farmed for the party, not themselves.

The year Wang was born, the party sent his oldest brother to work in a mine. The rest of the children stayed with their parents on the farm, enduring the throes of the Cultural Revolution and later enjoying the fruits of the party's 1978 launch of its reform and opening up policy.

Wang came to Beijing at the end of 1991, when China first bid to host the Olympics. Then 25, he was recruited to help build the stadiums China thought it would need. But in 1993, those Olympics were awarded to Sydney. Wang was out of a job.

The party's increasingly flexible residence policy allowed him to stay in Beijing as a migrant worker, taking jobs in restaurants. Wang worked hard and saved money, and in 1994, opened a small restaurant of his own. In 2005, he opened a bigger one. Today, he is scouting locations to expand and perhaps start a chain.

"I can afford for the family to come to Beijing," Wang said, as he ladled soup during a family dinner at his restaurant, Hongmei Shen. The Chinese characters combine his wife's name and the word for prosperous. "It's a sign the reform policies are working for us."

Wang's oldest brother, who is 62, lives comfortably on a pension from a state-owned steel company. His older sister lost her farmland when it was flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. She used a government compensation payment to buy a couple of houses to rent out for income.

Wang's younger sister also came to Beijing and opened a restaurant. Only one other brother remains on the farm. He now grows oranges under a new government policy that encourages alternative crops.

For three days last month, the three brothers took turns standing in line for the chance to buy tickets to an Olympic basketball game. They were able to purchase only two tickets, so the siblings asked Wang to decide who should go.

He picked his two older brothers, because that's what families do.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company