China cleans up for games, but will it remain that way?

Published 1:47 pm Saturday, July 26, 2008

Have you ever been on an excursion where your first stop is a wastewater treatment plant? Or some sort of eerie version of what a model village is for seniors?

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, or BOCOG, has really outdone itself — and many other organizing committees from past Olympics, Atlanta and Athens included — on building venues, mobilizing volunteers and creating a modern environment for the world to witness.

At times, it looks, Beijing has overdone itself. Especially making sure foreigners see what the Chinese want them to see.

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On a three-day tour organized by BOCOG (for which no itinerary was provided), the first stop for 300 international Olympic News Service interns was the last stop for much of the city’s sewage.

Completed in 2006, explained a tour guide, in anticipation of providing clean water for the athletes in the Olympic Village, students perused the purification process, from dark brown to crystal clear, keeping in mind Beijing’s tap water is undrinkable.

After the grand visit, the nine tour buses then hit the road with a police escort for a journey into what was touted as an “authentic” Chinese village. The road signs leading to the place pointed toward a location dubbed the Beijing Country Tour. Roads leading to the place were lined with varying vegetation with varying degrees of health, including corn.

Upon arrival, the guides had zero qualms about herding us through a senior living complex with an outdoor walking garden, a spectacular recreation area and every modern convenience.

Seemingly the crown jewel of the establishment was the 102-year-old lady we were encouraged to take pictures with and in the village the seniors insisted on singing, probably five times that day, one for each group of intern tourists.

The convoy rolled on through what was akin to an upper-end American suburban development mixed with a high rollers’ golf course and a smidge of classic Chinese architecture. So much for that authentic China experience, at least for a weekend.

From that point, the expedition was significantly more glamorous — a second trip to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and a lush night as a VIP at a Chinese opera theater among a stop at the Olympic Village and six upscale Beijing eateries.

The interns realized how cheesy the entire set-up was — that somebody actually organized a “country tour,” and expected people to mistake this utopian community whose centerpiece is a Greg Norman-designed golf course for a typical Chinese village.

But the same phenomenon has happened all over Beijing. Underprivileged neighborhoods are separated with a newly constructed wall, sometimes to replicate a more famous barrier. Others have been demolished or wholly rejuvenated to make way for progress spurred by the Olympics.

Traffic congestion should be alleviated by the end of this month with a mandatory alternate-driving schedule along with a construction ban that takes effect on July 20. On a blue-sky day, which is becoming more frequent as the summer progresses, the average Olympic-goer probably couldn’t tell the difference from an aesthetic between Beijing and any other foreign city hosting such an event.

The streets are freshly paved, the streets are being cleaned, and the venues are sleek. The city had three subway lines in 2000; it now has eight. By 2015, it will have 19.

Beijing’s makeover started with a little makeup on a few problem areas. Will these water treatment plants someday produce drinkable water? Will the ideal villages someday dominate the Chinese landscape? Will China continue the trek to aesthetic and social magnificence when the cameras are gone?

Nathan Cooper is in Beijing to cover the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. He is a part-time Tribune employee and a 2005 graduate of Glenville-Emmons High School.