Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City. The great wall. The Three Gorges Dam. Dozens of high-end shopping malls in Beijing.
China has thousands of years of doing things in very big ways, bolstering its perceived place in the world and the political power of its leaders – from emperors to Mao Zedong to current leader Xi Jinping.
Beijing becoming the first city to host both the Winter and Summer Olympics is perhaps not a feature of today’s landscape. But it’s in the same realm for the world’s most populous country, which has long framed itself at the center of the world, evident in its name in Chinese, “Zhongguo”, or “middle country”.
This affinity for greatness is not new. It dates back to a dozen dynasties that ruled China for thousands of years – one of which recreated an entire army of terracotta warriors to be buried with an emperor. It is a tradition of large-scale power projection that was adopted by the Chinese Communist Party when it seized power in 1949.
Writing in his book ‘Mandate of Heaven’, American China scholar Orville Schell explained how Mao, who led China’s communist revolution, expanded Tiananmen Square in the 1950s to make it the largest public square in the world. – 100 acres.
It is five times larger than Moscow’s Red Square. And Mao even did the Russians better by adorning the square with Soviet-style architecture, the most famous of which is the Great Hall of the People. Eventually, after Mao’s death in 1976, the square came to include his imposing mausoleum.
Schell wrote of Tiananmen, calling it “a propagandist’s dream come true. Everything was gargantuan. »
The colossal begins with the country’s population of 1.4 billion and extends to public buildings across China. Towering apartment buildings – some Soviet-inspired, others thrown into a frenzy of modern development over the past few decades – are generally set back from 10-lane avenues, reducing the size of pedestrians on the city’s sidewalks. size of a road.
The vastness reaches malls, retail spaces and buildings like Bird’s Nest Stadium, a 91,000-seat colossus erected for the 2008 Olympics and used a week ago for the opening ceremony of those Games. ‘winter.
A mall in the western city of Chengdu, the New Century Global Center, is billed as the tallest building on the planet. What size? Three Pentagons could fit inside. Or at least 300 football fields.
The seven-story, one-block-long media center for these Olympics – a convention center in normal times – replaces another oversized building that is a block away and was used as a media center for the 2008 Games.
Add China Central TV’s Beijing headquarters, a 234-meter (768-foot) two-legged tower known in the city as “Big Underpants” for its unusual design. Architect Rem Koolhaas said the building “could never have been designed by the Chinese and could never have been built by the Europeans, it’s a hybrid by definition.
Then there are 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) of high-speed rail lines and the Belt and Road Initiative, often described as the New Silk Road. Many consider it the largest construction project in history, stretching from China and East Asia to Europe and including rail lines, ports, highways and other projects infrastructure to expand China’s trade and influence. Critics warn of the unsustainable debt burden of many participating countries.
China’s attack on COVID-19 is also justifiably gigantic, capable of locking millions into a display of state power built in part on Orwellian surveillance architecture. Need a medical facility? During the pandemic, China built 1,000-bed hospitals in 10 days.
Maria Repnikova, a China scholar at Georgia State University, called China’s policy of expansion a “policy of grandeur,” something that goes beyond the concrete to include scholarships for foreign students, exchanges, training and economic aid.
“The idea is to give more to impress external audiences than we have so much to give you, that no one else can match that,” Repnikova said in an interview.
“The first thing you see (in China) is the intensity of scale, whether it’s presidential buildings or other Olympic venues or venues. It’s something that first grabs someone’s attention and then you wonder how did they do it? »
But in the Chinese context, what does big really mean? It’s impressive and can literally change the landscape. Yet there is also enormous significance in the thinking behind it – especially for a government that has long prized the projection of control to its sometimes disobedient hinterlands.
“The authoritative use of political symbols and propaganda can serve two purposes: to persuade the public of the legitimacy of the regime and to demonstrate the power of the state,” wrote Sheena Greitens, who studies China at the University of Texas. in Austin, in an email.
“I suspect that Beijing will use both during the Olympics, presenting domestic and international audiences with humanizing stories about ordinary Chinese people while ensuring they witness impressive displays of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and the power of the state.”
Diana Fu, a China scholar at the University of Toronto, said authoritarian states often systematically build what she calls “spatial governance,” which helps them quell any protests or insurgencies.
“Small, winding streets and dense neighborhoods can foster a sense of good neighborliness and trust, which is essential for collective action,” Fu wrote to AP. “In contrast, wide boulevards and predictable geometric patterns of streets and neighborhoods allow the state to better monitor and control its population. Authoritarian states like contemporary China are able to do this while facing little opposition from civil society.”
For the 2008 Olympics, China even tried to control the weather, claiming to make rain to clear polluted skies, then chase the rain away when it was needed. The rainmakers had facilities outside Beijing, where peasants wore fatigues and military helmets and used anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to blast the sky with silver iodide, hoping to attract rain from the clouds.
It gets big.
Sixty years ago, during the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong made outlandish claims about new agricultural techniques that could lift China out of famine. His plans to defeat nature were mostly based on ideology and pseudo-science and caused widespread starvation.
“Parties and authoritarian leaders try to create a sense of unassailability,” Alexander Dukalskis, who teaches international relations at Dublin University, wrote to AP. “Through symbols and displays of state power, they communicate that their rule is inevitable and challenges are doomed.”
He added: “State power projections are also useful for an international audience: they can convince other states or companies that if they step out of line, they can be punished.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Wade lived in Beijing for 2½ years covering the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and its aftermath.
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