Our apartment in Beijing overlooks one of the city's long-distance bus terminals, where people arrive from the countryside to find work or sell wares, and depart for visits or permanent returns to their home villages. Early last summer, the terminal was jammed, and most of the passengers were leaving town.
At the time, the outbound flow was taken as one more last-minute sign of China's optimistic, all-fronts effort to spiff up Beijing for its role as Olympic host. Through the spring, construction workers had toiled round the clock on any building or public-works project (notably, new subway stations) that had a chance of being completed by the time of the Games. For projects with no hope of making the deadline, workers toiled instead to put up screening walls, or to neaten the piles of I-beams and rebar that normally littered the sites. In July the government ordered a halt to all building or demolition work anywhere near Beijing, as part of a security lockdown and in hopes that construction dust would settle out of the air. The workers, mostly migrants from poorer neighboring provinces, went home on (mostly unpaid) leave to see their families and watch the Games on village TVs.