Living in Beijing, it’s sometimes hard to see the effects of the economic crisis here, but in the past few days I feel there’s been a shift in atmosphere.
As you may have already read, a large part of one of Beijing’s signature architectural complexes burned down on Lantern Festival, the last night of Chinese New Year. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which was part of the CCTV complex housing the famed Underpants Building, was to open in a month’s time, and the entire complex has been a source of Beijing pride for a good year ahead of its completion.
The circumstances of the fire were a little unclear at first. Although fireworks, which are let off hyperbolically even in dense downtown areas, were an obvious suspect, officials were strangely mum for about a day. CCTV, which owns the complex, later took responsibilty for the fire, claiming their own fireworks show from the roof of the unfinished building caused the fire.
But it all seems a little — I don’t know — convenient. As one of my friends pointed out today, they were unlikely to make money on a luxury hotel in these economic conditions, and insurance money can only be recouped in accidents. It was just too poetic for the building to burn down on the last night of Chinese New Year after 15 uneventful days of fireworks all around it. Regardless of the true cause of the fire, it’s a little uncanny how completely expected and unexpected the destruction of the hotel was — after all, something was bound to burn down with so many fireworks set off in the city by amateurs. But it’s still hard to believe that this iconic building was the one that burned down; imagine the Trans-America building burning to the ground and you’ll see what I mean.
I fear that the fire is a powerful metaphor for the chaotic times China is facing, and unsettling omen of Beijing’s future. Last year we saw a boom for China in many ways. National pride was soaring, construction around Beijing was racing to keep up with Olympic demand for hotels, restaurants and attractions, old buildings were being torn down to make room for luxury condos for the new generation of business owners and expatriats. Although there were concerns about a world economic downturn, many felt as if China was invincible.
Especially during the Olympics, it was impossible to imagine China tumbling down off of its pedestal along with the rest of the world. Beijing was in a dream world, and we, as witnesses to the Olympics, were privy to a view of China’s future. It was modern, clean, polite and above all, luxurious. The Olympic venues were without blemish, and the Olympics had spurred a flurry of new buildings, including one of the world’s few seven-star hotels.
Six months later, I’m wondering if “one world, one dream” was just a lie, and Beijing will soon discover the cruelty of reality after enjoying such a sweet reverie. The Olympic venues, which symbolized so much, have even fallen into disrepair a scant four months after the games’ closing. When I visited the Olympic Green recently, I tried hard to ignore the fact that the Bird’s Nest stadium was covered in dirt, that the water cube bubbles were wrinkled, that lamps were falling off of lampposts. However, recent events have brought the scene of desolation at the Olympic Green to my mind.
Last week Citigroup announced that in order to finance the maintenance of the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium — a cost of $8.82 million USD annually — it would turn the complex into a shopping plaza in the next few years. It’s sad to see a symbol that really meant something to so many people seemingly get thrown aside by its owners and the Chinese government. Initially, the stadium was to house Beijing’s soccer team, but they have pulled out of the deal. Currently, the Olympic Green is open to tourists, an alleged average of 20,000 to 30,000 per day according to the tourist authorities. Take this figure with a heaping truckload of salt — Beijing authorities release misleading numbers often, and the two separate times I’ve visited the Olympic Green since the Olympics I may have seen 100 tourists, combined.
Strolling through the empty Olympic Green, it was somehow impossible to recapture the feeling of harmony and hope I felt while I was attending the games. Now, bereft of the crowds that it was meant for, the green feels like an empty mockery of China’s hopes. It speaks only to an excess of ambition and a disregard for pragmatism. How could they tear down homes and businesses to build this gigantic park without a fool-proof plan for its preservation and continued usefulness? How could something once so great now be so empty, falling apart and covered in dirt?
I suppose time will tell if this is truly the beginning of the end, if the destruction of these iconic Beijing landmarks really is an omen. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like the paralyzingly fast destruction of the Olympic Green and Mandarin Oriental Hotel buildings are inextricably intertwined the the economic problems China is facing — or not facing, depending on how you look at it.
The government continues to deny and downplay the economic situation here, but there are signs if you look for them. Construction, which was buzzing all about the city before the Olympics has come to a standstill — many buildings stand as empty shells, paralyzed now for months. Estimates put unemployment at about 20 million people nationally right now, but estimates are usually low. In addition, the government puts growth at about 6.8 percent, while independent analysts from other countries put it at zero to 1 percent. I’ve seen a lot of people on the streets recently with “seeking employment” signs, and friends have commented on a distinct tenseness in the atmosphere. One friend has seen several fistfights break out over nothing, and recent shutdowns of stalls at the horrid Silk Market have caused near riots by sellers. In the South, which depends more on exports and manufacturing, riots have become increasingly common.
It’s going to be an interesting year, that’s for sure. As always in China, this could be a time of incredible social unrest, unlike anything China has seen in many years — or, it could be nothing. Only time will tell.