ChinaBeat - The Long Run

Oct 232008

The eager crowd roars, the piped music soars -- and the Beijing Marathon begins. The sight of thousands of runners from around the world bobbing off Tiananmen Square and arching toward the Forbidden City was undoubtedly impressive. I happen to be teaching at Tsinghua University, at the International Center for Journalists’ Global Business Journalism program, and hundreds of Tsinghua students showed up to run.The eager crowd roars, the piped music soars -- and the Beijing Marathon begins.

The sight of thousands of runners from around the world bobbing off Tiananmen Square and arching toward the Forbidden City was undoubtedly impressive. I happen to be teaching at Tsinghua University, at the International Center for Journalists’ Global Business Journalism program, and hundreds of Tsinghua students showed up to run.


“Tsinghua, jiayou! Tsinghua, jiayou!’’ Technically, it means “add fuel.’’ You can see why marathoners might need such encouragement.

Somehow, it was an event that also said a lot about the changes afoot in the world’s most populous country.

First off, it really has to be said: China, at least part of it, is increasingly on a new kind of health kick.

This, alone, is a cultural change worth noting. Yes, the country has always been sports-mad. And its reliance on bicycles meant that, even today, it’s possible to see people who appear to be nearing 80 smiling broadly as they pedal through this city of 15 million people.

At the same time, China had a love affair with tobacco that rivals that of, say, the Irish and Spanish. (I don’t speak in judgment -- my family hails from Kentucky and as a child I helped harvest golden burley leaves.)

A classic shot of Chinese life, which I’ve witnessed many times, is the battered soccer player leaving the field -- and lighting up.

But the increasingly affluent urban class of seems to have a different view. For one thing, they don’t get the physical workout of the ancestors as part of daily living. So Chinese physical fitness must be obtained through alternative methods.

I believe I realized things were changing when I was unable to get a stationery bike at my gym one afternoon. I had presumed most Chinese would view this form of exercise as redundant. I was wrong.

The Nirvana gym, where I belong, has a full schedule of aerobics, pilates and other body-contorting forms of exercise in which I have no personal interest. If I closed my eyes and just listened to the militaristic instructors and the multi-thumping dance music, I could almost imagine I’m back home in Miami.

It may be affluence that is driving individuals to the gym, but the push for healthier living is affecting Chinese life on a societal level. When officials moved to clean up the air for the Olympics, it unleashed a genie that may not go so willingly back into the bottle.

Like the United States in the 1960s, China is discovering it can afford to do something about pollution, and people are pressing the government to do so. Beijing can still, on a bad day, have an atmosphere that is barely opaque. But as I write this, my view out my apartment stretches from the electronic billboards of Olympic Park to the mountains at the far northwest edge of town. (Whether I’ll have this vista it when coal-based heating systems crank up in November, we will see.)

Working at a university, I can see that young people sense that fundamental change is underway.

Recently, for instance, there was a young man on the subway wearing a T-shirt with a startling message. “Welcome To The Chinese Century.’’

I tried to get closer, to ask him if he realized he was paraphrasing Time magazine founder Henry Luce, who famously dubbed the 1900s “The American Century.’’ I wanted to ask what he thought the Chinese Century might entail: prosperity? military might? technological prowess? What role did he foresee America playing in this Chinese Century?

But the packed subways of Beijing aren’t conducive to finding someone in the crowd -- you are lucky if you can see your own feet -- and so I had to settle for asking myself what will happen if China shakes the world over the next nine decades.

As a professor at prestigious Tsinghua, it goes without saying that I’m not getting a random sample of Chinese youth. The students here are among the smartest, most ambitious and (I suspect in some cases) privileged in this vast and ancient land. Still, there’s no question that, if we are indeed embarking on a Chinese century, the pupils in my classroom may very well be the agenda-setters over the next couple of generations.

Furthermore, as students of business journalism, they have a keen interest in both documenting, and participating in, China’s economic ascent.

What I find is a belief that, if America did it, China can, too. And indeed, many of the development tools come from the U.S. The buildings near where I live have names like Microsoft and Google at the top. (There are also KFC and McDonald’s outlets, which might undo some of those health gains I referenced above.)

My personal feeling has always been that the American Century occurred largely because, simply, the United States was in the right place at the right time.

We can’t yet know if the same conditions exist for China. If this is the Chinese Century, after all, there are more than nine decades of it left. But one couldn’t help noticing, on that crystalline Tiananmen morning, that the China of today is looking forward to the long run.