OPINION> Commentary
Come, see how far we've come
By Lijia Zhang (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-08-08 07:52

When I was at school, sports lessons included an exercise where we threw hand grenades (made from wood topped with metal to resemble the real thing) against a wall over which a red slogan had been stretched offering the reason for such a militaristic pastime: "Exercise our bodies and protect our motherland."

We feared that China might be invaded one day by the American "imperialists" or Soviet "revisionists". Indeed, the whole West held evil intent toward us. At that time we had little idea about the outside world.

I went to school in Nanjing in the early 1970s, when the revolutionary fever was calming down.

China has come a long way since then, yet the image of those dark days remains deeply imprinted on Western minds. I wonder whether the West is a little too keen to report the negative stories. Or perhaps the West feels more comfortable hearing such stories?

That's my impression, as a Chinese who has lived abroad, but has returned to Beijing. Even during those days throwing grenades, I dreamt of becoming a journalist and writer. That dream was shattered when I was 16 and my mother dragged me to work at a state-owned missile factory.

My journalistic career started with the Olympics. In 1993, on the night when the result of the first bid was announced, I was at Tiananmen Square. I recall the fountain going off as we thought China had won the bid. It was heartbreaking to interview the bitterly disappointed crowds. But, in truth, China wasn't really ready.

I was also in Beijing eight years later when China did win the bid. In our neighborhood, grannies spent the whole afternoon practicing their dance steps and their husbands beat drums and gongs. This time, we were not disappointed. The wild celebration, the deafening noise of fire-crackers, laughter and ecstatic cries went on the whole night. I was interviewed by the BBC. I said: "In the ecstatic cries, I heard Chinese people's longing for recognition and respect from the world."

I was just as happy as everyone else. Ever since the economic reforms, China has lifted millions of people out of poverty. An incredible feat.

As a child, I used to roast cicadas to satisfy my craving for meat; now my 19-year-old nephew, a student in Nanjing, drives his own car.

As a girl in the rocket factory, I had to endure so many rules. I worked there for 10 years. I was never promoted, partly because of my naturally curly hair - my boss thought I wore a perm. Back then, only those with a bourgeois outlook would curl their hair. These days, young women curl their hair, shave off their hair or change the colors of their hair whenever they want. It's not a small thing.

Over the past few years, I have seen how the capital has been transformed. State-of-the-art buildings - not just Olympic buildings such as the Bird's Nest' and the Water Cube - have popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain. With only a few days to go before the opening ceremony, Beijing, having undergone a facelift, has never been so beautiful, clean and quiet.

Huge efforts and sacrifices have been made. To ensure the best possible air quality, polluting factories around Beijing have been shut down, construction work has been halted and cars have been taken off the roads.

Yet Beijing's Olympics will be a success because the majority of the population wants it to be, not just because the government wants to use Olympic success to gain legitimacy.

Xia Fengzhi, a 67-year-old retired worker and a volunteer, told me how happy and excited he is about the Games: "I want foreigners to see what China has achieved. We were called the 'sick man of Asia'. Now we are strong and rich enough to hold such a major international event."

No doubt there will be many more negative stories abroad to criticize China. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, China's people ranked first among 24 nations in their optimism about their country's future, buoyed by the fast economic growth and the promise of the Olympics.

There is, I believe, another factor - the timing. The survey was conducted this spring, just after the Lhasa riots and the Olympic torch relay, when China experienced a surge of patriotism in response to what many Chinese regarded as an "anti-China feeling" in the West and biased Tibet reports.

I have no problem with the negative stories, but I think it's wrong for the West to stand in moral judgment, especially when some of the accusations are not true. For example, what happened in Lhasa ? In my view, there was a violent riot, one that would not be tolerated in any country.

I cannot help feeling there's been a missed opportunity on more important matters, too. But don't doubt our support of the Beijing Games. The Olympics are meant to be an occasion to bring different people with different views together. It'll provide a chance for China and the rest of the world to understand each other. Much of the fear is generated by ignorance.

Today's schoolchildren enjoy far more sophisticated sports than throwing hand grenades. They know a lot more about the outside world. I wonder if Western children know as much about China. And if they did, would there be still be the same fear? Maybe the Olympics will bring us closer.

The author is the writer of "Socialism Is Great!": A Worker's Memoir of the New China

The Observer

(China Daily 08/08/2008 page11)