The Olympics' promotion of volunteerism was a change for Beijing. When I arrived in China, as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, people felt sorry for me, wondering what sort of nation would send its young people overseas to work with strangers. In the run-up to the Olympics, however, volunteering became a government movement, enlisting students, state employees and retirees—older residents of my neighborhood recruited me to teach them English phrases such as "Beijing is getting better and better every day."
Volunteers continue to man my neighborhood's Olympic information booth, although they are now paid. "This booth is the responsibility of a city-owned shoe factory," says a staffer, Wang Duojun. "We are volunteers in that we raised our hands when our boss asked, 'Who wants to work outside the office one day a week?' But I like it. Mostly people just ask what bus route goes where." Wang says the Games have not altered daily life in Beijing. Beijing has moved on.
Over the next hour six people approach the booth. Five ask about buses. The sixth inquires about the health of his favorite NBA player, Jianeite—Kevin Garnett. On a piece of paper I write strained tendon in English. The questioner walks away, repeating the phrase.
Beijing's Olympic legacy doesn't compare with that of Seoul, whose 1988 Games cajoled the then one-party government to allow direct elections and liberalization. No such defrosting is taking place in Beijing, where plainclothes police are everywhere, including outside the studio of Ai Weiwei.
The bearded, portly Ai was chosen by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Mueron to collaborate on the design of the National Stadium. "The government would never ask me. Never," he says. Ai's father was a famous poet exiled to the country's far west during the Cultural Revolution, and the 51-year-old Ai forged a career as an avant-garde artist who bristled against the state. After the earthquake in Sichuan killed 70,000 people in 2008, Ai began a project on his popular blog that challenged the reported death toll of children, most of whom perished in schools that were allegedly poorly constructed because of shoddy building materials and misappropriated funds. Officials shut the blog down, but not until Ai's volunteers had posted the names and profiles of more than 5,000 victims.
Ai points across the street to a poplar. "When the road was widened, trees were cut down. One day I found a magpie's nest sitting on the ground. I was really worried about the unhatched eggs in it, so I carried it inside here and then placed it in that tree. But of course, the mother never returned to the nest. I had ruined it." The magpie's nest was not the origin of his stadium design, Ai says, but the story illustrates what followed its completion. "I wasn't invited to the opening ceremonies, and I wouldn't have gone," he says. "I have disassociated myself from every act associated with the state. Look at this city now; the empty new buildings along Qianmen are the latest example of officials and developers shamelessly chasing profit and more profit."
I fish an official Bird's Nest key chain from my pocket, one of the hundreds of trinkets branded with his design on sale at the stadium. "I've never been inside it," Ai says. "I love the building. I'm Chinese, after all, and it's good for China. Maybe young kids can see there is such a thing as graceful design, that it's O.K. to have dreams, that they can come true." Ai fingers the key chain and shakes his head. "But for now, my name is permanently associated with the country's biggest propaganda item."
MICHAEL MEYER IS THE AUTHOR OF The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.
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For S.L. Price's story about Beijing one year before the Olympics, go to SI.com/vault