You don’t have to take it from me. You can bet on it. Nobody, visiting China for the 2008 summer Olympics and coming in through Beijing International Airport’s staggering new Terminal 3, would be thinking of 1989 and Tiananmen Square. In fact, after touch down, it’s unlikely people would be in a thinking frame of mind at all. They would simply be staring around in awe and admiration as they take in the stunning beauty of what’s indisputably the largest airport building in the world as well as its most modern.
It’s like stepping into a new planet. Not my words. One Western traveller wrote this in a recent blog, adding that, by comparison, London’s Heathrow looks like “a landing strip for Catholic fanatics”.
The New York Times said the same thing in a July 13 report on Beijing’s new architecture: “If Westerners feel dazed and confused upon exiting the plane at the new international airport terminal here, it’s understandable. It’s not just the grandeur of the space. It’s the inescapable feeling that you’re passing through a portal to another world, one whose fierce embrace of change has left Western nations in the dust.” Mark the last words.
The Chinese are clever and they have guessed right. It’s the first impression that matters and airports, being a visitor’s first point of contact with a new country, help build that impression. Shaped like a stretched-out dragon, with a sweeping aerodynamic roof that allows in natural sunlight throughout the day, the $3-billion airport, designed by famous British architect Sir Norman Foster, is a perfect introduction to a greater marvel that awaits visitors in the city, a Beijing that has totally re-invented itself and is unrecognisable from even eight years ago.
As Time magazine wrote in a recent issue: “Beijing today is a vibrant, increasingly confident metropolis of nearly 20 million people, the powered leader of a national social and cultural transformation that is developing hand in hand with China’s amazing economic boom.”
These are glowing words, and quite a play. Suddenly, China appears to the world, despite Bush, in a dramatic new image wherein its past failures are no longer more important than its current successes. In this respect alone, the $60-billion the government has sunk into transforming Beijing in the last seven years to prime it up for the Olympics will be viewed as an investment worth its while. The purpose was to change people’s perception of the country, to project it as a modern, forward-looking nation matching a vibrant, dynamic economy, and to portray a people who make things happen and take pride in what they achieve.
That purpose has been eminently achieved.
But, in my opinion, Beijing’s amazing rebirth also reflects something more fundamental and important: The will of a government to change and improve things, to stand up against status quo and to leave no stone unturned to achieve meaningful, harmonious, and sustainable growth. The Olympics haven’t been to the government just a sporting event, to be handled by a particular sporting authority, but a national cause as pertinent as preparing a national development plan, rallying the highest authorities behind the effort.
Some observers think what China has done to rebuild Beijing in less than seven years is comparable to what went into the building of the Great Wall about 2,500 years ago. That may be an exaggeration, but only just a little. The Bird’s Nest, the Terminal 3, the Water Cube, the extraordinary new CCTV Headquarters, and the Opera House in Tiananmen Square will be cited as examples of China’s post-modernist future long after the Games are over. And the physical infrastructure built around these architectural landmarks will continue to influence Beijing’s urban lifestyle for years to come.
Remember this: The length of Beijing’s expressways and ring roads has tripled from 216 km in 2002 to over 700 km by this year, directly linking every satellite town in metropolitan Beijing. Nine toll expressways link Beijing to its suburbs, outlying regions and other cities. Three new subway lines have been built especially with the Olympics in mind, creating an eight-line network that now boasts a total length of 200 km. Thus, in one go, Beijing has become a good example of what a modern, livable city should be like. Surely, not all the bad air has been shooed out of Beijing, but a truly massive effort has gone into clearing it up. Polluting factories have been shut down or removed and extensive new plantings of trees have given Beijing a face much greener than ever before.
For me, though, there’s another aspect to Beijing’s Olympic legacy. It poses for us a test as we push our own plans to rebuild Delhi ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
People will be comparing. We better remember that.