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Long After Beijing Olympics, China’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Lives On As A National Symbol

Since China organized the 2008 Olympic Games, its revolutionary national stadium – dubbed the “Bird’s Nest” – has been the symbol of a country turned toward the future. But it also serves as a reminder of the country’s unresolved internal tensions.

Gabriel Grésillon

BEIJING - Inside the stadium, the pride of an entire nation and its people is obvious. Various screens, including a giant one in the middle, display footage of the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony over and over again. The souvenir shop sells more than 300 different products. But a salesman says point blank: "The Bird's Nest memorabilia sells better than the rest."

Beijing travel agencies agree. The Olympic stadium is now the city's third most visited monument by Chinese tourists, right after the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. Countless ads have used it as their background. After only three years of existence, the Bird's Nest is already part of history.

The number one reason for its success is that it represents Chinese pride as well as the exceptional success of the Beijing Olympic Games. China is not only satisfied with transforming its capital and organizing the world's biggest event glitch-free, it also prides itself for finishing first in the medal count with 100 overall, 51 of them gold.

But the Bird's Nest is more than just that. It is also the symbol of the country's return to the international spotlight. The stadium has truly become an icon of modern China. "Besides China, what other country has the resources to build something like that?" asks Tessa Aryani Untung, an Indonesian architect based in Beijing.

Everything about this building screams huge resources: 1,085 acres, nearly 580 million dollars, and only four years of work thanks to the 7,000 people who worked on the construction site. As a tribute, their pictures are displayed around the stadium. But among the different ingredients needed to carry out this project, the most precious is also the most immaterial one: boldness. In choosing a singular and innovative design, China proved it could be open-minded, contradicting the image the rest of the world had of China. This open-mindedness can be seen through the stadium's design: the aim was clearly to display the building's frame, not hide it. Such a choice reflects "China's desire to show the world that it's now capable of the most amazing achievements," says Tessa Aryani Untung.

One could also see this bold move as a sign that the country is evolving in terms of aesthetics. According to a Chinese architect who refused to be identified, "China is a country which has been assimilating western values for the past 30 years and is now facing an unprecedented cultural break-up. The apparent chaotic framework of the Bird's Nest can be seen as the perfect symbol of this phenomenon." He adds that today, "everyone wants something to attract attention." Most big Chinese cities want to organize their own event in order to create their own Bird's Nest. And so came the 2010 Shangai World Expo, Guangzhou's 2010 Asia Games and even Shenzhen's World Student Games.

A major maintenance challenge

But how long can people remain in awe of a building, which symbolizes something that is now obvious? The flow of tourists has already weakened. Right after the Games, an 80,000-visitors-a-day limit was set up in reaction to the building's incredible success. Today, only a few thousand people come to the stadium every day.

The Bird's Nest is struggling to find a viable business model, a common problem for Olympic stadiums. Because of its multiple outdoor columns, it is also very sensitive to pollution. "It is one of China's major challenges today in terms of maintenance," says Tessa Aryani Untung. It's also far from the city center and badly-served by public transportation.

And to make things worse, it's surprisingly hard to organize sporting events in this particular stadium. Zhang Qing, CEO of the Key Solution consulting firm, explains that "it's too big considering how slowly professional sport is developing in China."

Symbolically, the building may also suffer from the ambiguous memories left by the 2008 Games. If Chinese pride is still there, it is now stained with bitterness. The Chinese showed their eagerness to reintegrate into the international community with slogans such as "One world, one dream."

"But in 2008, they suddenly discovered that some countries had no intention of sharing their dream. They thought the Olympic Games were only about sports, but the event turned out to be more political and it hurt the Chinese organizers," says Bo Zhiyue, a political scientist from the National University of Singapore referring to the Olympic torch incidents in Paris, London and San Francisco.

According to Zheng Yongnian, head of the East Asian Institute, during the Games, Chinese people lost their illusions. It was a real trauma in a country where the media have been pushing the idea of "China's peaceful rise." The Games were supposed to boost the country's opening to the world. "Chinese civil society has opened up but the political system hasn't," he says.

As a result there is an increasingly visible gap between the regime and the people. On the one hand, Chinese people travel more and more, they are better connected to the world and they have a healthier relationship with the outside world. On the other hand, the political regime feels more confident than ever. According to Zheng Yongnian, this confidence comes from the success of the Olympic Games, which "in a way confirmed that the Chinese regime, in which the State has resources and runs things, is good."

Instead of opening a new chapter in China's political history, the Beijing Olympics seem to have brought an end to the country's convergence with the rest of the world. With its outstanding design and yet eroding popular success, the Bird's Nest is a kind of embodiment of current tensions between the regime's excessive confidence and the growing number of questions the people have begun to pose.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Francisco Diez

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