And change, of
course, is what allowed China to dream of hosting the 2008 Olympics, an event
that has buoyed national spirits despite the human and economic costs.
"Because this is about China," Xia says. "It has nothing to do with
politics. The 1.3 billion people here, they want to see the best happen and
this thing handled by themselves. I'll work for the Olympics for free, as a
volunteer. This has been a thing with Chinese people for the past 30 years,
when we see how all foreigners think China's a different world--strange place,
strange people. Now we're going to show you what we can do. This is not about
counting money in the pocket. It's about heart."
Xia Song's father
has a room in his daughter's Beijing apartment. Each day the old man wakes up
and squints out the 11th-story window and sees it: the Bird's Nest, glimmering
in the haze. "It's very new, very modern, very original," Xia
Guangqiang says. "After the whole thing got built I liked it."
He has been
charting its progress for three years, this vision of China rising. The outside
latticework is all but finished. The men hustling over its skin look like
When the world
comes to Beijing next summer, it will hear one phrase over and over from the
Chinese crowds. "Jia you!" fans will scream at the diving well, at the
table tennis competition, on the night of the 110-meter hurdles at the Bird's
Nest. " Liu Xiang, jia you!" The phrase (pronounced jah yoh) is a
colloquialism meaning Come on! Step on it!, but the literal translation is most
appropriate for these times: Add oil!
work is not like seeing a sleek laptop process millions of bytes of information
per second. It's like witnessing a giant turbine, circa 1965, belching smoke
and shooting out sparks; you're not sure how close you want to get, but you
can't take your eyes off the thing because it's whining louder by the second
and the ground is shaking and--wow!--it keeps producing more and more money.
After the recent spate of stories detailing nightmarishly lax food-processing
standards and labor abuse, it was not unusual to hear Westerners compare the
country to Upton Sinclair's turn-of-the-century America: China, the new
So early one
Friday evening you head over to the Bird's Nest again and slip through a fence
to the workers' quarters. China is in many ways still a developing country,
and, yes, you can smell the evidence: the stench of sewage wafting over the
paths between the three-story temporary housing units. It's dinnertime, so some
workers are lined up with tin bowls for the ladled stew. The rest squat on
their haunches in the dirt, already eating.
Yet the men are
smiling, laughing even, which you think must be because you're a foreigner and
they don't want to make waves. You go up to room 426, where 12 men sleep in
bunk beds on mattresses of plywood, earning $50 apiece for their seven-day,
63-hour workweek. "It was such a surprise to come here and work on the
Nest," says Tang Yonggang, a steelworker who has been on the site for 2 1/2
years. "I couldn't believe it. It's the best job I've ever had."
Tang, 26, hails
from Henan, one of China's poorest, most corrupt provinces. A decade ago he
left a job harvesting wheat and corn in his hometown of Puyang and came to
Beijing as part of one of the great migrations in history, the ongoing
flow--120 million and counting--of Chinese workers from rural to urban areas.
He has been home just twice to see his wife and baby daughter since he started
working on the stadium but figures the $700 he sends back each year makes it
all worth it. The Bird's Nest job, Tang says, is his first tenuous foothold,
his first real piece of China's market economy. "For sure there's more
opportunity," he says. "Everybody has to fight for chances in
Night has already
fallen over Beijing, streetlights buzzing in the thick air. You drive back to
your fine hotel, where one day you saw former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke
and the next you saw Yao Ming, and you pass the Silk Street Market, with its
stalls of counterfeit goods and the massive mural that in English neatly
subverts the official Beijing Olympic motto from "One World. One Dream"
to "One Dream. One Shopping Paradise."
Next to the words
are the photos of an unidentifiable hurdler and the Bird's Nest, and you think
again of Tang's obvious pride, and how he said he'll be watching the opening
ceremonies next August--maybe in Beijing, maybe back in Puyang--and thinking,
All the world's athletes, and I helped make it. Part of the Olympics is