Monday, August 25, 2008

China's Olympics: The Engineering

Right, so having read the previous post, we can now discuss the actual things China did to solve its real and/or perceived problems in Beijing.

The smog would have to be the first thing to go. "Come to Beijing, die of lung disease!" is a horrible tourism positioning. That and harm coming to invited guests is really shameful, especially to a "face" culture such as China. (China's neighbors are also "face" cultures for the most part.)

A large portion of northern Beijing had nothing in it. So it was converted into a large park with an intricate pond. The plants would, in theory, soak up the pollution. But this wouldn't happen fast enough to have clear skies in August, so a supplemental step was taken of deliberately causing a eutrophic bloom. The growing algae sucked all the pollution from the water, which made the water hungrily absorb more pollution from the air. The algae was then harvested and put somewhere discrete so it wouldn't decay, which would have ended the cycle.

With clearing skies, the Beijing authorities then looked to traffic. The load of cars was not only making getting around a slow process, but was also a major contributor to the pollution problem in the first place. It was ruled that cars must alternate their trips on the road, with one day for cars with even plates, the next for cars with odd plates. Carpooling was encouraged.

This was still not enough, so the subway system was massively expanded, especially between the airport, most of the hotels, and the grounds. Traffic would not be a problem with all of these subway lines in place. (More are still planned to encourage a reduction in car use after the games.)

The city ugliness then got the authority's attention. The various stadiums were works of art, certainaly, but wouldn't work well in a drab, brutalist city. Gardeners worked madly to grow many little flower gardens, especially near the stadiums. City residents quite enjoyed this sudden splash of color.

Satisfied with the physical conditions, social engineering was then examined. The authorities had multiple fears on this matter.

Firstly, the continuing fight against rudeness. A lack of service culture had been noticed over ten years before, with locals complaining of clerks rudely dismissing them over anything deemed not part of the clerk's job. The clerk felt so secure in his position that he felt he could treat the customers any way he pleased. The government had been disabusing the clerks of this attitude. With firings. This was stepped up.

Secondly, spitting. While the traditional Chinese thing to do when one has a phlegm problem is to spit it on the sidewalk, and this is in fact the best thing to do medically, it tends to horrify people of European descent, who had a history of airborne disease that would be spread by such practices. (China has no such history, hence the spitting. Spitting the phlegm gets the problem outside your body, and unlikely to spread to another's, unless you spit it ON them, which they don't.) Many "manners teachers" went about the city instructing people about the rudeness of doing so, advising people to swallow their phlegm instead. While not as good as spitting medically, this still works. Stomach acid tends to destroy most bacteria and viruses. This way, the wealthy "first world" nations would not observe Chinese people behaving like the "backwards bumpkins" that they were depicted as in the past.

Language was then addressed. There are at least as many languages in China as in Europe, but functionally one can operate in China with two: Mandarin and Cantonese. Almost every Chinese citizen speaks at least one of those. Unfortunately, knowledge of non-Chinese languages is a bit more limited. China has a very long history of being an isolationist country, with little interest in what goes on outside its boarders. A recent interest in English was ramped up with government assistance in teaching, as well as instruction in French, German, Japanese, Russian, and a few other languages likely to be prevalent during the games. (As neither Mandarin nor Cantonese are common outside of China, most language students are utterly boggled by the ideographic writing system.) Confused outsiders would not be a good thing, it feels "unfriendly." (If I were told that a group of Beijing citizens were coming to see me, I think I'd want to learn at least a catch-phrase knowledge before they showed up. Even if they did learn a little English from the movies or Internet.) Japanese was especially surprising, as China has all but declared Japan to be a blood rival.

Dissent is a common worry of the Chinese government. Every dynasty since the earliest ones have made decisions unpopular with somebody or other, and the tradition about dissent is that you shut up and get back to work before you get in trouble. The authorities felt, for whatever reason, that protesters visible in the streets during the games would be embarrassing. This was solved in a method I don't really approve of: Anyone seen as likely to protest was unceremoniously deported. It may have short-circuited on-camera protests, I suppose, but that kind of behavior isn't good for the long term reputation. China is, like Germany, ultimately an "Order" nation, so I don't think it minds suffering the wrath of some for the desire of more.

Lastly, the authorities wanted to show off. To ward off the reputation of China as a poor country, and to flaunt technical sophistication, the airport was stocked with talking robots that recognized and spoke back with each of the languages I listed above. The robots reportedly walk autonomously (a difficult task), recognize specific people, remember short conversations, and other tasks. They have stock answers to common questions in the top languages. Speech recognition is difficult for robots, and recently large strides have been made by Chinese people in this topic. (I recall a researcher describing using his own difficult struggle to learn English to try and do the same to a computer, which doesn't understand any human language to begin with. Many aspects of speech recognition are counterintuitive.)

Many of China's dreams for the games did not come true. The organizer's idea of the long, multicircumnavigational torch relay was dogged by protests in quite a few of the ports it stopped at, to the annoyance of both government and common citizen alike. (The Chinese government has enraged quite a few people during its years. Many of the citizens feel like they are unfairly targeted as well.) The organizational efforts have been criticized rather soundly. Even in China, a few people suspect that the entire event is essentially a stunt, and that by the end of September, many of the improvements they enjoyed for the games would be dismantled for whatever reason.

This Olympics have often been described as China's "coming out" party, much of it being the Chinese government and people's way of saying, "Hey, we're a rich and powerful country now. We should be proud." They've worked hard for it. And plus, last week, the Chinese government did something I thought it would never do in a million years. It agreed to negotiate with someone they previously considered practically the devil himself: The Dalai Lama. (The Dalai Lama used to be the leader of Tibet, and pretty much has every reason to stir up trouble there and otherwise make the Chinese government miserable.)

Welcome to the first world, China. It isn't easy. You'll have to fend of entropy, sloth, and stagnation, and sometimes people will make fun of you.

Oh, and what's with you guys and Sudan? Really, I'd like to hear it.

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