Posh Parties Show a Beijing Awash in Capitalism

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.

"This Great Wall was a military fortification, and yet today is a symbol of peace and friendship," said Pan, chairman of the development company Soho China, welcoming his guests before a series of Chinese and foreign musicians entertained the crowd.

In fact, during the Olympics, many parties have been banned by public security officials, said Gao Li, marketing director for the Party Maker, a Beijing-based event planner.

"Only Olympic sponsors, the government and foreign embassies can host parties these days," said Gao, who helped the British government rent out and transform a privately owned traditional courtyard home in the popular Houhai neighborhood for $4.4 million for the duration of the Olympics.

Many of the parties have been at the "cultural houses" set up all over town, where foreign governments are pitching tourism, securing investments and offering up networking opportunities. Guests can find vodka (Russia House), Heineken (Holland House), caipirinhas (Brazil House) and chocolate (Switzerland House).

Gao said that in the last two years, parties in the capital have become more sophisticated, incorporating themes and traditional Chinese culture and in one case employing workers dressed as Qing Dynasty servants.

Inside the Olympic Green, the Chinese culture on display has not been completely ersatz. Organizers at the Johnson & Johnson pavilion had carefully shipped to Beijing five terra cotta warriors from the famous burial site in Xian, where the first Qin emperor decided that he needed an army of 8,000 to protect him in the afterlife.

"We had to bring them to Beijing because this is a common cultural heritage for all humankind to appreciate and enjoy," said Wu Yongqi, director of the museum in Xian, who came to open the pavilion last week. "The Olympics are a very good stage and venue for us to showcase this very epitome of Chinese civilization."

Johnson & Johnson just so happened to create an anti-fungal solution that the museum used to help preserve the warriors when a bacteria was found to be eating away at the soldiers.

After the party at the Commune, one guest remarked on how Chinese the event had felt.

"It was a small smattering of international folks in a Chinese venue, run by Chinese, filled with the Chinese crème de la crème," said Christopher Thomas, a deputy general manager at Intel China. "The Games are overtly corporate, with huge booths, huge billboards, huge numbers of tickets given away to corporate VIPs. . . . But at this Olympics, the corporates are simply interlopers into the local scene, playing at the edges. The local money, the relationships, the dynamics are all Chinese."

Visitors leaving the party were driven down the hill, through Shifoying village and past a small family inn where the owners charge $4.20 a night.

"Do you mean the party we're not allowed to attend?" said the hotel's owner, a woman surnamed Gao, when asked about the party.

"They always host parties," said her husband, who gave his surname as Hou. "But we cannot enter. The Commune and our village are two separate worlds."

News researchers Zhang Jie in Beijing and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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