Posh Parties Show a Beijing Awash in Capitalism

Scene from a party at the Commune at the Great Wall, a luxury hotel and architectural showcase developed by Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin. Video by Chris White/The Washington Post
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 16, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 15 -- With dozens of Chinese gawkers nearby, supermodel Cindy Crawford toured the Omega corporate pavilion here earlier this week, showing off her photographs of Tiananmen Square and Beijing's narrow alleys. The pavilion was one of the elaborate sponsor buildings set up on the Olympic Green, and Crawford was being paid to attend, and to wear one of Omega's diamond-encrusted watches.

The Chinese onlookers thought her appearance Thursday was the most natural thing in the world.

"Everyone wants to be in Beijing right now, from ordinary visitors to famous stars," said Zhang Fenglian, a 29-year-old lawyer who had to ask who Crawford was. "This is the most modern and cool place to be."

Wealthy Chinese have been throwing glamorous receptions and trendy, celebrity-filled parties for years. But with the Olympics, Beijing is reveling in the most lavish display of capitalism, commercialism and celebrity the Communist Party has ever seen.

A day before the Games opened, more than 800 people attended a party hosted by Adidas that featured Hong Kong action megastar Jet Li, free-flowing vintage champagne, break-dancers, former Olympians Ian Thorpe and Nadia Comaneci, and a countdown to the Olympics in a discotheque atop a hotel. In the swag bag for invited guests only: a pair of brand-new Adidas shoes with gold stripes.

Two days later, at the Commune at the Great Wall, a luxury hotel and architectural showcase developed by Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the hotshot Beijing tycoons greeted Quincy Jones, Rupert Murdoch and wife Wendi Deng, and Li Yanhong, chief executive of Baidu.com, China's leading search engine.

There were three barbecue pits with roasting lamb; a young modern drum corps; glamorous models in impossibly short skirts; fist bumps; and actor Jared Leto. The guests sipped Veuve Clicquot. In one corner was retired Japanese soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata. In another, German architect Ole Scheeren, co-architect with Rem Koolhaus of the new CCTV headquarters, and his girlfriend, Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung.

"Now, China has money," said Jindong Cai, conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and co-author of "Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese."

"This is a very international crowd," he added. "Zhang and Pan always get the most visible people because they know them, and those people want to get to know Pan and Zhang, because they represent not just the rich and famous but the combination of Western and Chinese culture."

As China's political center, Beijing has long lagged behind the financial capital of Shanghai in the hip and cool department.

Now -- for this month, anyway -- Beijing is China's center for cosmopolitan buzz. The parties are the city's way of saying as much. But the parties also seemed designed to convince the public that this country, while communist in name, is hyper-commercial in spirit.

At the fittingly named Commune, where guests wore blinking red stars on their lapels, a fleet of luxury BMW sedans delivered guests from the bottom of a hill to the gala.

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