UWS students, faculty see China's Olympic prep, impact on people first-hand

As the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games fill TV sets across the world Friday, a group of local students and professors will see familiar sights.

As the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games fill TV sets across the world Friday, a group of local students and professors will see familiar sights.

A group of 18 University of Wisconsin-Superior students and two professors visited Beijing, China's capital city, this spring to study how preparations for the Olympic Games were affecting the average people.

The China Workshop, May 22-June 4, is the lab portion of a spring semester course on contemporary China, said professor Marshall Johnson.

During the trip, students apply what they learn in class into research about the changes in China since the 1980s when the country switched to a free market economy.

This spring the students looked at how the People's Republic of China uses its historical spaces to make people feel they're a part of their government. The group visited landmarks such as the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, which the government manages and promotes to justify itself, Johnson said.


The main focus of the trip was the affect the Olympic preparations are having on the city and Chinese people, he said.

The Olympic preparations are intensifying the inequality between the wealthy and average people in China as well as spurring the Chinese people's patriotism and pride, he said.

The government is trying to build national pride in hosting the Olympics. The new buildings make the government seem strong, he said.

"This is a major event for China. They're very excited to be hosting the Olympics," said professor Mary Pulford.

But lots of people have made sacrifices in order to host the event, she said. Historic neighborhoods have been torn down to make way for the Olympic buildings -- their people displaced to the suburbs.

Immigrants from other places in China have been brought to Beijing to help construct the infrastructure needed for hosting the games. The city has faced issues in housing the influx of people and educating their kids, she said.

"From the standpoint of the ordinary people it's been very hard," Johnson said.

Thousands of homes have been bulldozed, he said.


While in China, the students spent time visiting the displaced people. The students also spent time with migrant workers who've been working on the new construction projects in Beijing.

The migrants have it the toughest. Their employers can do anything they want to them, but they need to work because they need the money, Johnson said.

The students also visited factory workers and heard about their lives at a time when China is under pressure from Western countries to be more modern. The country is making changes in the factories and ordered all work to slow down in June in order to improve air quality before people arrived for the games, said senior Joe Stensland.

The ability to meet factory workers, who make many of the products purchased everyday at U.S. stores, was one reason Stensland said he wanted to visit the country.

What happens in Beijing affects Superior, he said.

The students have seen the statistics about inequality in China, but to meet and talk with the people and hear their stories, "I think that brings all the book learning to life," Johnson said.

The Chinese government has no reliable statistics on how many migrant workers are in Beijing, but researchers working in China estimate that about 400,000 migrants were living in the city, Johnson said.

The government also stopped construction in the city this spring and ordered the migrants to go home on June 1. Since the workers were ordered to leave, many employers simply refused to pay them because they thought the workers had no recourse for collecting their wages, and that was a big problem in the city when the group was leaving Beijing, Johnson said.


This was the first time senior Bixby Ho, a Chinese-American, has visited mainland China. His previous trips were to Hong Kong.

He was impressed by the people of Beijing, he said.

"What I liked most about this trip was the people. The Chinese people are very open. From the conversations I had with them, they were just very open-minded," he said.

All the people the students met -- from the people they met in the street to professors at the universities -- "had their own story to say about Beijing and why it's special," he said.

Ho also enjoyed the food in the city. Authentic Chinese food is more elaborate and healthy than what is available in the United States, he said.

In addition to talking with the people, the students spent time visiting Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, a Hutong village outside the city, the Olympic sites and Beijing universities.

"And so we got to see the past, present and future of Beijing," Ho said.

With the Olympics this year the trip was amazing. Beijing is going to be making history, he said.


The people are excited about the games. They think the attention will bring a boost to the country's economy, he said.

The Olympics are bringing changes to the city itself.

Pulford first visited Beijing in 2001 and since then there are many more cars on the road, new high rises, an expanded airport, new subways and several fewer bikes on the road.

The majority of the sites for the Olympic games were built on what was farmland 10 years ago, she said.

Stensland visited Beijing as part of the China Workshop in 2007. The city has changed considerably from just last summer, he said.

It's very modern with many new hotels and restaurants opened for the games, he said.

"It's impressive to see what people can do just from a common goal," he said.

Anna Kurth covers education. Call her at (715) 395-5019.

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