Course:GEOG352/2020/The Olympics and Reinventing South Identities in Beijing, China

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Introduction: Can Global Cities and Mega-Events Truly Reinvent ‘South’ Identities?

Beijing Olympics 2008

Global cities have been internationally recognized as global flows of capital, people, ideas, and centres of prosperity[1][2]. They demonstrate ‘good city’ attributes and serve as a model for other cities to aspire to [3][4]. However, in the geographical south and east, they also represent deeper colonial-rooted struggles and ambitions of acceptance into the Western-led international community [2].Western hegemony has identified the geographical south and east as sites of poverty, violence, irrationality, and underdevelopment [4][5]. The international community has labelled them as the 'developing world' or the 'Global South' [6]. Oppositely, the West has been associated with identities of superiority, modernity, equality, and success. They have labelled themselves as the 'developed world' or the 'Global North' [6].

Urban theory and global cities play a large role in the creation of identity in the global hierarchy. Urbanization in the 'Global South' is framed with a developmental narrative, as cities of the geographical south and east aspire to become like 'modern' Global North cities in order to gain recognition as equal 'developed' nations by the international community[1][4]. Mega-events, such as the Olympics, are tools for the Global South to gain international attention and stimulate opportunities for global flows of capital and people[2][7]. They serve as a platform for 'developing' nations to 'prove' themselves against inferior South identities and reinvent themselves outside of these constructed realities[7]. With the slogan, “Great Olympics, New Beijing” China has used the Olympics to become a Global city and reinvent Beijing’s South identity[7]. We will investigate how their South identity has changed, and how urban theory has contributed to this process.


Western urban theory largely reflects colonial history by labelling regions in the geographical east and south with inferior "South" identities and negative 'othering' perceptions[8]. These labels incentivize 'South' cities to seek new opportunities to 'reinvent' themselves and gain recognition in the global hierarchy[9]. However, reinvention often takes into the form of participation in western ideals of modernity and economic success that continue to perpetuate these uneven power dynamics[9][10]. Similar to many other ‘South’ countries, China's identity has been associated with poverty, corruption, low-quality, and cheap products and services [11]. Regardless of its rich history, culture, and the unique everyday lives of people in the country, China’s South identity has been deeply rooted in Western perceptions and international labels of inferiority[12]. Thus, in order to 'reinvent' this identity, Beijing initiated its 11th 5-year plan (2004-2020) consisting of tourism development and visions of capital accumulation to transform into a Global City[3]. This plan included hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with the slogan "Great Olympics, New Beijing"[7].

Stadium during the opening ceremony
The Olympics as a Global Spectacle: the audience during the opening ceremony

Global spectacles, such as the Olympics, play a major role in the creation of a city's identity and how they assert themselves to the rest of the world [2][13]. For example, the interest for broadcasting and sponsorship opportunities during the Olympics attract many different foreign investors[14]. These investment and sponsorship opportunities that are unique to the Olympics and mega-sporting events emphasize their influential role when host cities work to reinvent their identities[13][14]. However, since the Olympics are primarily a western Eurocentric event, they emphasize how Global North cities influence the reinvention of South identities via infrastructure upgrades, community developments, and gentrification to fit western hegemonic ideas of success and development[14][15]. To fit into western standards, gentrification tends to involve physical and structural loss of historical art and infrastructure for most of these cities, which consequently impacts local neighbourhoods and residents[13][15]. The modern Olympics and mega-events consistently attract notable global attention the host city[13]. This attention is provided through the increased media coverage of the nation, greater investment interest by foreign entities and they also persuade avid followers to go to the host country which results in greater tourism[13][14][16]. Due to this immense attention, many cities work to be positively perceived by international audiences[13]. Mega-events are instruments used by Global South cities to fit within the western hegemonic idea of the ‘developed world[13]. This opportunity often results in “world-class infrastructure, cosmopolitan and high-tech communities'' which fit into Global North urban theories of development[15]. This case study investigates local changes in the city, as a result of the Olympics, to identify elements both unique to Beijing, and possible patterns that may be found across greater scales in cities that host mega-events, especially those in the Global South.

Success in global cities is largely evaluated by economic measures such as investment opportunities, hubs of TNC headquarters and financial centres, and tourism industries[17]. This is largely problematic as cities, globally, become incentivized to implement more Western neoliberalist programs that invest in outward, foreign exchange-attracting elements to the city[17]. This is at the expense of destroying their own traditional culture, disrupting their own residents' livelihoods, and loss of inward-looking welfare service opportunities that can benefit those already living in the city [18][17]. Similarly, mega-events, like the Olympics, often lead to significant change in the urban landscape, through new architecture, new markets of investment, and beautification initiatives [19]. These changes largely occur unevenly against marginalized residents' wishes. Neoliberalist initiatives in Beijing, and other Global South cities, may perpetuate South identities and neocolonialism. For instance, Beijing has destroyed Chinese cultural buildings and forced evictions on its own residents in exchange for modern Western ideals of success of redevelopment and global capital accumulation [18]. Thus, we will explore how Beijing implemented change during the Olympics in order to become a global city, and if they were truly able to reinvent their 'South' identity.

Case Study: How The Olympics Impacted Beijing

How Hosting the Olympics Improved China as an International Brand, and Beijing as a City.

Beijing Olympics goes green, with newly added development that mimic EuroAmerican infrastructure

Mega-sporting events such as the Olympics have been viewed by host countries as an opportunity for economic growth, revenue boosting, and rebranding. Being successful in their bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Beijing China showcased their increasing economic power and international brand on the world stage through advertising and news media; China had an opportunity to improve its image as a developed and stable country. During the games, it was found that high media exposure of the Olympics significantly improved China’s image due to the U.S press positively covering the logistics of the event[14]. Additionally, the image of China improved by the increase of U.S citizens viewing the Olympics because of the increasing US medal count throughout the games[14]. This suggests that the more positively a person feels about the Olympics, the more they perceive China positively. This new and improved image of China is a key factor in influencing international consumers to purchase products from China because of their attempt to brand themselves as a developed country that is capable of hosting a mega-international event[14]. Furthermore, China’s attempt in improving their international image also involves improving their domestic legitimacy where the Olympics were aimed toward its internal audience[20]. In a study conducted on Chinese citizens, it was found that positive acknowledgment about the Olympics was linked to a positive perception of China and its development, and less so on its government[20]. The Chinese government, still an authoritarian regime, had hoped that Chinese citizens would link this growing positivity of China as a country to legitimizing the ruling regime and leadership. All in all, China had successfully managed to grasp onto the international stage to attract international investors and audiences.

The 2008 Olympics also had positive impacts on the housing market, and environmental protection in Beijing. These positive impacts on the city of Beijing were done to give the illusion that Beijing is like the developed west, in hopes to attract international investors and tourism. By intentionally showing Beijing as a “developed” city similar to Euro-American cities, it is thought that investors would more likely invest in Beijing’s economy. In contrast to the west, where EuroAmerican countries rely on existing infrastructure, China and Beijing drew from public funds to construct new facilities, upgrade infrastructures, and improve environment quality[21]. Four new subway lines were developed throughout the city core area to improve accessibility and the social environment in these districts[21]. Additionally, residents in different geographical regions experienced different welfare changes because of varying infrastructure and social composition across the regions. Private homeowners gained exceptionally more welfare and utility from the Olympics than those in the public sector[21]. However, in order to minimize the risk of social conflict caused by the unequal treatment between citizens, Beijing removed restrictions on non-local residences during job hunting, and increased low-rent housing to ensure better treatment for the informal citizens and migrant workers[21]. There was also a demand from the citizens of Beijing for sustainable environmental improvements, causing a series of policies to be implemented on improving environmental standards[21]. State-owned enterprises were relocated to the neighboring province of Hebei in order to minimize the pollution around the Olympic facilities[21]. The local Beijing government also implemented temporary control on transportation. For instance, private vehicles were limited to what days they could operate, trucks could only operate on busy roads during certain times, and high-emitting vehicles were banned from roads throughout Beijing[22]. These restrictions were proven to limit traffic control, and thus significantly improve the air quality in Beijing during the time of the Olympics[22]

How Hosting the Olympics negatively affected Chinese citizens domestically.

Beijing National Aquatic Center was renovated and turned into one of the coolest water park in the city

Countries in the global south, especially when hosting mega-sporting events, have often been associated with a showcase of “multicultural national identity, the signaling of re-entry of the host country into the global community”[23]. China certainly has promoted its international status and succeeded its rebranding after hosting the Beijing Summer Olympics 2008. China did improved in its status, its economy and number of international tourists grew which led them to be deviated from the idea of the global south.  However, significant problems remain within the country under the surface which cannot be ignored.During the planning phase of this event, it was found that local residents’ needs were widely neglected while over-prioritizing visitors’ needs[23]. Local governments forgo opportunity costs when they choose to build infrastructures for international tourists, although such investments do not guarantee the greatest return[24]. Olympic villages, stadiums, and venues were built solely for temporary visitors, with the sacrifice of local residents who were forced into displacement by the government. The lower class Chinese citizens experienced difficulties to afford regular housing and to access resources to meet their basic needs, which forced low-income migrants to settle in urban-skirt and abandoned suburban industrial sites[23]. Moreover, development on historical and cultural heritages due to new city upgrades which were meant to fit into Western ideologies resulted in a greater loss of culture and displaced local residents[25].

The negative consequences of “rebranding” the city for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics continued to affect the city post-event. After the Olympics, public venues turned into luxury resorts for the upper-class as a profit-gaining opportunity and these spaces were largely inaccessible to the rest of Beijing residents[24]. Although the venues were built with the speculation of the post-Olympics use by a wide population, a lot of them were constructed by the private companies, which limits the accessibility and usage to a certain group of people. During its construction, the government relied on the public sector to build the Olympic projects, which employed the build-operate-transfer system. This means that private investors are responsible for mapping the construction and eventually become the operator for a certain period of time[24]. As a result, in order to gain back the revenue from its construction, private companies decided to turn the venues into a commercialized space for China’s new rich and foreign visitors[24]. This gives rise to the question of the concept of “public space”. 2008 Beijing Olympic was hosted by a city and country, which all the population should have rights to access to these resources. However, powerless groups in society are often the ones who disproportionately bear the burden of cities being developed to provide for the needs of temporal visitors rather than local inhabitants[23]. In fact, mainstream Chinese domestic media tended to present positive reactions from the public regarding the success of the Olympic Games, but there was also news coverage of exclusion experienced by the migrants - the heroes of the background who were constructively excluded from receiving the Olympics benefits[23].

Lessons Learned

Beijing Shooting Range Hall developed specifically for the Olympics
  • Although mega-events provide countries with immediate economic benefits and allow countries to make/receive investments during the events, these investments do not always provide the greatest long-term returns. Many ‘modern’ venues were built for the Olympics to indicate a ‘developed’ nation, however these venues are usually vacant after the event. Hence, other cities need to ensure that the new venues have the ability to benefit the local public residents, not only the private sector and upper-class sectors
  • Private sectors benefit from the infrastructure and commercialization of structures, whereas the poorer public sector does not. For instance, as housing is gentrified, prices will inevitably increase. Governments should make special provision for caring for the economically vulnerable and impoverished who are likely to suffer on account of the escalation of housing prices.
  • Residents need to have a say during major events, specifically due to the consequences that arise from inflation of prices, unattainable housing markets, commercialization of historical art and other commodities. Therefore, future host cities need to understand local public needs and ensure city changes will provide them with opportunities and beneficial outcomes from mega-sporting events
  • Although the Olympics provide international investments and popularity, they cannot provide sustained benefits through a single mega-event. International marketing and public relations that were used to enhance a country’s image may not provide long-lasting changes because the effects of advertising and promotional campaigns, unless continued, decay over time.
  • Beijing’s strategies to reinvent themselves against inferior South identity were influenced by western ideologies and theories, however not all provided benefits. There is a need for ethnographic research and development of theories outside of Euro-America.. Western urban theories cannot be applied to cities and countries all across the globe. The Olympics were a western Eurocentric event, therefore as cities prepare for such mega-events they need to ensure that they look at ethnographic theories from areas similar to theirs.


Reference List

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