China Launches Olympic-Size Headache

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

BEIJING — By staging the most costly and smoothly executed Olympic Games in history, China has created a big headache for cities planning or aiming to host future Games, but whether the Beijing Olympics alleviate any of China’s woes at home or abroad, or perhaps aggravate them, is far from clear.

According to official figures, China spent almost $2 billion to build and renovate facilities directly for the Olympics and a staggering $41 billion on related infrastructure projects, including at least four new subway lines, a high-speed rail link to a neighboring city, and the largest airport terminal in the world. Private cost estimates go even higher.

It’s doubtful that a democratically governed country would ever authorize spending on that scale.

“China is a country with enormous central power that can expend so much money in a short period of time,” a Beijing economist, Mao Yushi of the Unirule Institute of Economics, said. “It’s not possible for any other city to make this kind of expenditure.”

Backers of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics are already jittery that the city may not meet the Beijing standard. In the future, Olympic organizers may be forced to turn to oil-rich, undemocratic nations such as Qatar, which recently saw its 2016 bid rejected for timing and weather reasons.

“I really question what’s going to happen to us in the U.S., especially the Chicago bid,” an anthropologist who studies sports in China, Susan Brownell of the University of Missouri, said. “I just don’t think we can do the cheap Games we used to do or we’ll never get another Olympics. In retrospect, especially the Atlanta Games seem almost laughable.”

With five days to go in the current Games, many of the worst fears and gloomiest predictions have failed to materialize. There has been no reported terrorism in Beijing, though there have been a handful of shootouts, bombings, and attacks elsewhere in the country that may have been related to or timed to coincide with the Games. Police have acted swiftly to snuff out the smattering of protests here by foreigners over Tibet and religious freedom issues, but there have been no reports of violent clashes. Thus far, athletes have refrained from protest.

In another break for Beijing, the panic over pollution has subsided. While a pall of smoggy fog sat over Beijing in the week or so before the Olympics, the oppressive conditions lifted soon after the Opening Ceremony. Due in part to severe restrictions on driving and factories, but probably in larger part to favorable weather, blue skies appeared over Beijing last week, shocking many longtime city residents.

Yet, aspects of the tranquility here are artificial. For the Olympics, Beijing has become something of a Potemkin Village. Thousands of petitioners who descend on the capital every year to demand action on their grievances were dispersed and driven out of town. A million or more dusty migrant workers, who labor under arduous conditions and are often shorted on pay while erecting the newest additions to Beijing’s fast-changing skyline, were sent home to the provinces just as the athletes and tourists arrived.

“They’ve done the best job of organizing the largest-ever Olympic Games,” Ms. Brownell said. “Part of that organizational ability is a high level of social control.”

With the migrant workers gone, security tight, and visa restrictions limiting the number of foreign tourists, some veteran China watchers said the Games lack the one thing the Middle Kingdom has always had in abundance: people.

“Beijing is a big city with a lot of people in the streets. Every time I’ve been there it’s just chockablock with people. Sometimes you can hardly move. Now, we have this image of Beijing where there are no people,” a former businessman who campaigns for the release of political prisoners in China, John Kamm, said.

During television coverage of the women’s marathon, the crowd lining the route looked to be only two or three people deep, Mr. Kamm said. “Clearly, people passed all kinds of security checks. … You see the streets behind Tiananmen, there is no one there,” he said.

Also vacant are the spaces Chinese officials designated for protest during the Games. Some hailed the zones as evidence of a breakthrough for civil liberties in China, but the state-run news agency, Xinhua, said Monday that none of the 77 applications to demonstrate had been approved. Two people were reportedly sentenced to one-year terms of “re-education by labor” after applying to use the zones, which are far from the main Olympic venues. Several others have reportedly been detained or deported to other cities after making similar requests.

“We thought it was a sincere effort,” Ms. Brownell, who had urged the Chinese to set up the protest spaces, said. “I can’t imagine why they haven’t carried it through. … It makes me just think there wasn’t a consensus behind the scenes about how to manage that process.”

Visitors have seen few signs of repression in the cleaned-up capital. The only major security faux-pas was a quickly reversed decision to park an armored personnel carrier outside the front door to the Main Press Center. Even before the Games, China had dropped its limits on access to most Western news Web sites. Still, some athletes complained that they couldn’t update their personal Web logs, likely because China blocks entire domains that host banned writings about Taiwan, Falun Gong, or democracy.

While China has made efforts to sweep many of its social problems under the rug during the Games, signs of problems such as worker safety and minority rights were present even at the lavish Opening Ceremony. An acclaimed dancer, Liu Yan, 26, was paralyzed after she fell from a 10-foot-high platform during a rehearsal. A band of child singers wore costumes representing China’s more than 50 recognized minority groups, but the children were all from the majority Han group, resented by many minorities because of the control Han Chinese wield over places such as Tibet and Xinjiang as well as the government-provided incentives they get to settle there.

Organizers said nothing about Ms. Liu’s devastating injury when it happened, reportedly denied it when first asked, and confirmed it only after reports in the Western press. There have been apologies, but no talk of an investigation of an accident that seems to have been preventable.

“For the most part, those controversies have not overshadowed the spectacle that Zhang Yimou put together,” Mr. Kamm, who studies Western opinion toward China, said. “I think coming out of the Games there will be a modest but discernable uptick in China’s image worldwide, but as time goes by the same issues that led to the deterioration in China’s image of the last three or four years, Darfur, Tibet, human rights, job losses overseas … these same issues will come back and that uptick will be eroded.”

Most Chinese seem caught up in the Games, particularly the patriotic fervor surrounding China’s lead in the gold medal race. There are hints of resentment over the costs, particularly in rural areas where about a third of China’s population lives on less than $3 a day, but Mr. Mao, the economist, said he expects no real furor. “They get used to it. Beijing has always been spending a lot of other places’ money on its own development,” he said.

Ms. Brownell said China’s determination not to seem wasteful may bring more openness, as authorities are virtually compelled to open the Olympic venues to a range of public gatherings. “They’re not going to want to have white elephants,” she said. “Chinese people, most of the ones I’m talking to, say unequivocally, ‘The Olympic Games have changed China. … Look around you and see it.'”

The New York Sun

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