Beijing 2022: What does the boiling, regulated COVID Olympics really look like? Photo/Getty Images
At a hotel in Beijing’s Olympic Park, two signs vie for attention, draped over a fence against a deep blue backdrop. “Together for a shared future,” says one, trumpeting the official slogan of the 2022 Winter Games. Directly to his left, in large white letters, another warns: “Closed loop area. Do not cross not the line.”
“You can’t go that way,” said a black-clad guard outside the China National Convention Center hotel. “Everything is separate.”
Visitors may find this ironic, even hypocritical. It’s not. For Beijing, the capital of a nation where the characters of “city” and “wall” can overlap, it has become part of the DNA.
It’s the latest incarnation of something that has characterized China’s capital for centuries, from the days when emperors occupied the Forbidden City: at its heart, Beijing is a compartmentalized metropolis of tiny closed, fenced and subdivided ecosystems that are developed both organically and by design – but it has made this city oddly appropriate as the site of the locked down, tightly regulated and bubbling Covid Olympics.
Beijing, which may still look like a small city in places, has lived a modular existence for a long, long time. “The whole interior of the city is laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterful precision that no description can do it justice,” wrote a 13th-century Italian visitor, a man named Marco Polo.
And today, between the disproportionate architecture of commerce, ideology and the Olympics, stands a city still in a way a chessboard full of squares of odd sizes.
Exhibit A, spotted from the bus in the bubble: many hotels housing visitors during the Games are compact, fortified compounds, interior fences adorned with Olympic signs and guarded by staff, and a formidable police presence to keep occupants safe inside the closed enclosure. – “bubble” loop.
Like many Chinese city hotels, they are meant to function as islands once the doors are closed. In such an ecosystem, you can almost forget the rest of the city exists – the perfect sensibility to encourage and enforce Winter Games Covid protocols.
Everywhere you look in Beijing, you can see evidence of such siloing. It’s an eclectic patchwork of economics and politics, telling the story of decades of over-planning and lack of planning, chaos and control – of narrow, fenced-off spaces stretching around famous avenues and open squares from the city.
Start at the ancient hutong – narrow, winding lanes full of court residences called siheyuan whose roots date back to the 1200s when informal encampments arose just east of the Emperor’s Forbidden City during the Yuan Dynasty. ruled by the Mongols. They have become a complex, sometimes hierarchical system around the city.
Although hutongs still dot Beijing today, some of them well preserved, many were demolished in the first decade of the 21st century during a building boom that preceded – and was partially caused by – the first Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.
The general sensibility, however – of self-contained Lego pieces strung together into a larger whole, some meticulously controlled and some a little renegade – runs very deep in the city.
For centuries, Beijing has been ruled by security concerns, fear of prying eyes and traditional Confucian notions of hierarchy. The city was surrounded by fortified gates and walls to separate it from the countryside; inside the city things were divided into outer and inner cities.
Inside the city center was the Imperial City, essentially its own community that served the dynastic court. And at the very center was the even more sequestered Forbidden City, where the greatest elite interacted with the palace and the emperor himself. A closed-loop bubble, if you will, with access determined by influence rather than credentials and negative PCR tests.
“Every wall, gate, temple, palace, street and courtyard had its specially designated place,” writes historian Mingzheng Shi in “Rebuilding the Chinese Capital: Beijing in the Early 20th Century,” a 1998 essay.
The old Beijing has long since given way to the new Beijing. And after more than a century of two governments struggling to impose order on the rampant inconsistency of planning, this is a very different city. Nonetheless, some key features of today’s Chinese capital – built and accumulated over seven decades of Communist Party rule and, more recently, assertive capitalism – echo the old.
The layout of modern Beijing – organized since the 1980s around a series of “ring roads” that segment it and control entry and exit – functions as a tacit reminder of the walls of the old city, to which the ring corresponds. innermost. This approach continues; The Seventh Ring Road, on the outskirts of Beijing and connecting it to other cities, opened less than four years ago.
Even as Beijing has evolved into a modern metropolis, compartmentalization and control have remained at the forefront, always competing with chaos. The main roads are cluttered with various contraptions to prevent people from crossing where they are not supposed to; thanks to seemingly innocuous but highly effective fences, jaywalking is not only illegal but operationally implausible.
In Beijing, even vast spaces that give the appearance of total openness – parts of the Olympic Park, for example, and the iconic and politically sensitive Tiananmen Square – are equipped with devices that carefully control entry and exit. . Pekingese remain accustomed to sudden diversions based on fences, walls, or even strange buildings appearing unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s the government behind it, sometimes not.
And part of the “work unit” organizational sensibility, pervasive in Chinese society from the 1950s to the 1980s, also remains – the notion of the workplace as an isolated mini-community with its own ecosystem, sometimes supplemented by residences, medical clinics and special rules.
End with China’s official stance on Hong Kong, the “special administrative region” it reclaimed from British colonizers in 1997 and is forced on paper to treat differently from the rest of the country until 2047.
In China, this guiding principle is called “one country, two systems” – a segmented approach to governance that echoes the Beijing Olympics, where the juxtaposition of citizens outside the bubble with those inside of this month definitely looks like one city, two systems.
The city walls of Beijing belong to yesterday; only fragments remain. But for the capital of a country that has built a Great Wall to keep invading foreigners from the other side, the Olympics offer a chance to dust off the checkerboard approach that has been a part of the city since its inception.
Osvald Sirén, Swedish art historian and author of “The Walls and Gates of Beijing”, said this about the capital in 1924: “The life of the whole city is concentrated at the gates; everything that comes out or goes in has to go through those narrow openings.”
It is an apt characterization of the Beijing of centuries past. It also describes, perfectly, part of the city right now – Beijing’s Olympic pandemic, circa February 2022, a place of narrow openings, pledging to bring people together for a common future but ensuring, at all times in a closed loop, that the wrong people don’t cross the line.
Ted Anthony, Director of New Storytelling and Newsroom Innovation for The Associated Press, is the former Asia-Pacific news director for the AP and covers its seventh Olympic Games. He lived in Beijing as a child in 1979-80 and as a journalist from 2001-2004.