By Rian Dundon
New America Media
"I tried to write a letter at the end of last year to be a volunteer for the games but they said they prefer students from the universities in Beijing,” says 23-year-old Xiao Wei (not her real name) who hails from a farming community about an hour outside Changsha. She is the first of her clan to attend college but says volunteer positions at the Olympics only go to students of top universities, not from smaller schools like hers. “We know many big preparations are happening in Beijing through the TV and newspaper,” says Wei. “It is not a popular or common topic of conversation among the students because we cannot do anything for it and it just seems kind of far from us."
Her classmate, Wu Yaqiang, 22, who also comes from a farming family in rural Hunan agrees. "As you know, a lot of students like me come from remote places so the Olympics seem like something we can only talk about but cannot take part in. The heart is willing but the flesh is weak."
“It is something that only the people in cities around Beijing care about,” says Wu Lei, a 22-year-old university student in northern Hunan’s Zhangjiajie City. "People from Hunan and other far away places, we don’t really feel very excited about it and I don’t feel a personal connection to it.” His sentiments are common among young people here. It seems that instead of uniting the country behind a common goal, the Olympics have only widened the gap between interior China and its eastern seaboard. Most young people here never felt a connection with Beijing to begin with; now they have one more reason to feel left out of the picture.
Not everyone in Hunan feels so distanced from Beijing. Yang XiXi, 21, is a university sophomore from the remote city of Jishou in the far northwest corner of the province. She spent last summer in Beijing at an intensive private English school and is enrolled in a selective exchange program in Jishou that will let her spend her senior year in England. "Hunan is in the south of China but distance doesn’t mean anything,” says XiXi. “Take me for example: I am an English major so I think my ability to speak English and to listen and interpret will be useful for helping this great party. I’ll go to Beijing in 2008. I need this chance to do a favor for my motherland. Maybe in some ways she needs my help."
Most of the young people interviewed seem acutely aware of the fact that their government has spent vast sums of money preparing for the games. It’s always the first thing mentioned when the topic of the Olympics comes up. They readily accept that holding the Olympic Games in Beijing will help the economy and enhance the international image of China. But there is also resentment towards Beijing and a fear that the games’ positive effects will be limited to that city and its neighbors. The fear is that the financial incentives for holding the Olympics will never trickle down to the inner provinces. “The bad thing is that the gaps between the rich and the poor, the big cities and small cities, will broaden,” says Wu Yaqiang. “As you know after all, the Olympics can only affect a very small part China. The rest will be left behind.”
“If foreigners only stay in Beijing and other mega-cities, they won’t know very much about China,” says
Wu Lei. “They will only feel the air of the big city’s richness instead of the air of the backwater’s poverty. If they could go to the deep countryside they would find that there are still many, many problems in China.”
Most young people in Beijing or Shanghai are aware of what exists in the interior of their country but for many that awareness doesn’t go beyond what they see on TV. In places like Changsha people take pride in their tough lives. A punk rocker who just returned from a trip to Shanghai dismisses that city as full of “foreigners, yuppies and office ladies.” To him it’s “not really China.” Changsha, he says with a grin, in English, is “more hardcore.”
There is, however, a feeling that the truth, however ugly, can only help China. Chen Yu is a gifted 26-year-old graduate student from an upper middle class family in southern Hunan’s Shaoyang City. He agrees that Beijing has spent too much money on the upcoming games but hopes that above all, the world will be allowed to see China for what it truly is. "They will report, good or bad, but at least they will report the reality of China and let others know about my country,” says Yu. “I don’t need them to report only good things. Most foreigners know nothing about my country. 2008 will give them a chance to gain a stronger point of view."
Wu Yaqiang is not as hopeful as Chen Yu. "Since most of the focus will be on the big, representative cities I bet foreign countries will think highly of China,” says Yaqiang. “A long-term price will be paid if China leaves them with a bad impression. As a Chinese, I feel responsible to participate in it but the doors are shut for me. We can only learn of its progress by means of the media."
On a recent Saturday night, thousands of people stroll up and down the central shopping street of Changsha. One of the few stores licensed to sell Olympic paraphernalia is open. It shares a storefront with a boutique selling specialty chopsticks. The shop is dwarfed by the massive video arcade that glows next door, with oversized statues of Batman and Superman standing guard at its entrance. There are only three people in the Olympics store browsing through the overpriced pens and coffee mugs. The chopsticks have twice as many admirers.
Dundon is a photographer and writer living in China. This year he received a grant from the Tierney Foundation and New York University to further his work on youth culture in interior China. His photos can be seen at www.dunnflicks.com.
Source: New America Media