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SIS Expert Looks at China’s Olympian Efforts to Change

When the sweet-faced girl who sang like an angel at the opening of the Beijing Olympics turned out to be lip-synching, Judith Shapiro wasn’t surprised.

The China expert had been observing the run-up to the game long before the rest of the world tuned in.

She knew that old neighborhoods of narrow streets beloved by tourists had been demolished, replaced by rows of gleaming stores that advertised Nike and Samsung.

She knew how the old men of Beijing had been ordered not to appear in traditional pyjamas during the games, and that even the pairing of white socks with black shoes had become taboo.

And she understood what it is about China that made these sweeping actions not only possible, but defensible to many Chinese.

Years ago, Shapiro became one of the first Americans to teach in China. She ended up cowriting a riveting personal glimpse of life in the Cultural Revolution, Son of the Revolution, that is still assigned in many college classrooms.

Shapiro is now a professor at the School of International Service, director of the Global Environmental Politics program, and director of the dual degree program in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development with the United Nations–affiliated University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Her work is strikingly cross-disciplinary. She teaches courses in international politics, comparative and regional studies, and international communication as well as environmental politics.

Among her recent books is Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, which traces how Mao’s China strove to conquer both human nature and nature itself in its struggle to realize utopian schemes. That era may have passed, but it set the context for the booming, wealth-seeking China of today that bulldozed its past and displaced millions of people as it sought to showcase its modernity in the 2008 Olympics.

“Man must conquer nature” was one of Mao’s most influential slogans. Though deeply at odds with the Chinese ideal of harmony between man and nature, it exemplified the approach the party would take.

There would be one model for all China, top down and centrally planned, with no regard for local conditions or opinions. Forests would be cut, rivers diverted, and the landscape altered, much as human nature was to be reshaped through collectivization and indoctrination. All China, from its people to its land, was to serve the revolution.

Mao died in 1976, and three years later, Shapiro landed in China. She was in her mid-20s, fluent in Chinese and with two master’s degrees, when she came to teach as one of the first “foreign experts” permitted in the country.

Only a few years earlier, China had been caught up in the Cultural Revolution, a time when, she says, “if you had a padded chair, you could be accused of being reactionary.” But with Mao’s death, the approved system of beliefs changed radically. The Communist Party launched a reform campaign called the Four Modernizations, and Shapiro arrived in a country where everyone seemed to be seeking what they called “the Three Rounds”: a watch, a dishwasher, and a bicycle.

After years of being taught that materialism was an evil to be annihilated, in the late ’70s the Chinese were being handed a new set of beliefs. “It was a time of enormous intellectual questioning and doubt,” Shapiro recalls.

In the midst of it she met and married a literature student. It was, in fact, the first such marriage in Communist China and required special permission from Chairman Deng Xiao-Ping. Together they wrote Son of the Revolution that told her husband’s wrenching story of growing up during the Cultural Revolution as it tore apart families and destroyed lives.

One of the first personal accounts to come out of those years, it drew a great deal of attention and was even made into a TV movie in 1990 Forbidden Nights, starring Melissa Gilbert as Shapiro in a much-altered version.

“They had me coming as a sort of airhead wanting to know why there was no Bloomingdale’s in China, and where I could get my nails done. But it was a fun thing,” Shapiro says.

The marriage ended amicably, but her academic relationship with China went on. She continued to write about the country even as she expanded into a related interest: global environmental politics. Shapiro now works on the political and social dynamics of environmental degradation. China is a fascinating case study for her as it plunges into a market economy while still grappling with the legacy of the Mao years.

That’s the China that came into sharp focus with the Olympics.

“In today’s China, where there is so much disillusionment with the Communist party and government, the government’s legitimacy rests in some ways on its ability to provide a rising living standard,” says Shapiro.

Preoccupation with wealth and material status is filling the hole left by the rapid-fire loss of ancestors and Mao. Rather than stay on their once omnipresent bicycles, people seek cars, and not small cars, either, since a large car proves they can afford a driver. All of this, Shapiro says, “bodes very poorly for environmental protection.”

Yet a rising consumer class may ultimately demand a cleaner environment. China does indeed have a vast new middle class. It’s this image of a booming, gleaming China that the government strove to project during the Olympics, which have been seen inside China as a time for validation.

So there could be no loss of face. No old men in old-fashioned pyjamas; no shabby neighborhoods; no talk of Tibet or Darfur to disrupt the harmony.

In context, it makes sense that the controversies that emerged from the games involved what Westerners see as artifice, from the fake fireworks to the parade of ethnic minority children who turned out not to be minority at all.

“All these can be understood as a piece,” Shapiro says. “This is a culture in which appearances matter tremendously. There isn’t a sense that deception is being practiced. It has to do with hospitality and putting on the nicest possible show for the honored guests.”

The perfect show included an environmental facelift for Beijing that may, in the end, have a positive impact. “To the extent there have been blue skies during these two weeks, it’s demonstrated to the people of Beijing what it’s like to have better air. That creates public pressure for the government to do something about that. That’s very significant.

“Other long-term beneficial effects include some of the infrastructure around subways and mass transit. Some of the polluting factories may have been shut down permanently, but others are located to other places where they’re going to poison the people who happen to live there. But there are better efforts to quantify pollutants, and those technical expertises will continue, so air pollution monitoring has taken a step forward, even if the results are not made public.”

Long after the Beijing games are a memory, China will continue to implement sweeping changes. And whether those changes continue the damaging pattern set in the last decades or ultimately come closer to the traditional ideal of harmony, China’s impact on the world will always be Olympian.