China's big Olympic tests

The 10 high hurdles the host nation has to clear for success. By Clifford Coonan in Beijing and Raymond Whitaker
Click to follow
The Independent Online


China has changed since 1989, when thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators were massacred around Tiananmen Square. Interference by the state in people's lives has diminished, but China still executes far more people than any other country. The slightest attempt to promote independence in Tibet or self-determination in Xinjiang is ruthlessly stamped out, and inconvenient critics can be sent to labour camps without trial. China's best-known human rights defender, Hu Jia, was jailed for three and a half years in April for "inciting to subvert state power". During the Olympics, three "protest areas" have been set aside, but they are miles from any sports venue, and organisers must obtain an official permit.


Double-digit growth means China, which uses 40 per cent of the world's coal, has overtaken the US to become the world's largest emitter of CO2. Beijing is one of the world's dirtiest cities, choked with smog that is often two or three times the maximum allowed by the World Health Organisation. The government spent nearly £9bn to deal with the pollution and fill the capital with flowers and trees for the Games, but had to take drastic action, including removing half the capital's cars, closing dirty factories and suspending construction, when the smog proved stubborn. Even now it is touch and go whether the air will stay clear.


Public anger at corruption has caused several outbreaks of violence, and the Communist Party has identified the "grim and arduous task" of fighting graft as central to its survival. The collapse of many schools in the Sichuan earthquake was blamed on shoddy construction, passed by corrupt officials. The same problem is said to underlie poor food safety, and lack of health and safety enforcement at work. The worst flashpoint is the eviction of farmers and seizure of collectively owned land for development. A report by China's audit office said city governments kept more than 70 per cent of revenues from land sales off their books.


More reporting of natural disasters and social issues has been allowed in recent years, but control of the media remains central to the Communist Party's grip on power. Last year Beijing removed travel restrictions on foreign journalists based in China, but rather than easing curbs on dissent, as the Olympics movement was promised, they have tightened ahead of the Games. And as visiting journalists have discovered, not all restrictions on the internet have been lifted, though the Great Firewall of China has been breached for certain sites, such as Amnesty International, as a result of the fuss.


This is where the power and organisational ability of the Chinese, and the importance of the Games to the government, can be seen and felt. There are 31 Beijing Olympics venues, of which 12 are new, 11 are older buildings that have been extensively remodelled and eight are temporary structures. The centrepiece is the Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron-designed Olympic Stadium, the "Bird's Nest", which will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 29th Olympiad, as well as track and field events. London will be hard-pressed to emulate Beijing's record for completing its facilities on time.


Hundreds of child slaves were discovered working in brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan provinces in central China last year. Child labour continues in poor and remote areas, even though it is officially illegal. Sweatshop conditions remain widespread, particularly in the southern industrial regions, although a growing labour shortage is forcing employers to treat their workforce better. The Olympics will draw attention to another class of exploited children: some young Chinese athletes, especially gymnasts, have come up through special schools that train children from a very early age and put them under intense pressure to succeed.


China played an "honest broker" role in helping to find a deal on North Korean nuclear weapons in six-party talks in Beijing, and exerted pressure on the Burmese regime to allow in some international aid after this year's cyclone. But it remains allergic to any suggestion of sanctions against international wrongdoers on which it is increasingly reliant for oil, minerals and other raw materials. It vetoed a UN Security Council move for sanctions on Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and is trying to stop the International Criminal Court's charge of genocide against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan over Darfur.


Beijing has invested heavily in public transport for the Games, including four high-speed trains, extra bus routes, and three new subway lines, one of which goes to the airport. But hotels hoping to cash in have been disappointed. Some at the top end were renting rooms, for the whole of August only, at £12,000 a time, but visa restrictions, aimed at maintaining security, and bad publicity since the Tibet crackdown earlier this year have forced a dramatic cut in room rates. City tourism officials say four-star hotels are only 50 per cent booked during the 8-24 August Olympics period.


Sudan and Zimbabwe are among China's clients for arms exports, often used to cement relations with countries that have mineral resources. The arms industry, in turn, is part of a massive increase in Chinese military spending, which has risen by an average of 15.5 per cent annually for the past 14 years, according to the consultancy Jane's. Nuclear-armed, with an ever more sophisticated conventional arsenal and the biggest army in the world – 2.3 million soldiers, 800,000 reservists and a People's Armed Police of 1.5 million – China is well-equipped to intimidate its neighbours.


Official efforts to get the Chinese to become more polite and welcoming for the Olympics are paying off, according to foreign residents. Attempts to improve their English are more mixed. A cheerful (recorded) woman's voice exclaims to passengers in English: "Welcome to take Beijing taxi!" But beyond that, the driver's English rarely stretches beyond "Bye bye", and occasionally a knowledge of numbers. Some cabbies have been trained in weird conversational gambits, such as: "Did you know China raised petrol prices for the first time in 18 months recently? Analysts say it is because of the rising cost of oil around the world."

... And four big issues for the Olympic Movement


Olympic inflation has a scale all of its own. The cost in 1948 was £600,000, Athens spent £10.25bn, and Beijing's final bill is estimated at £19.7bn, plus security. Revenues are harder to assess, spread as they are between the host city and the IOC. Full-face-value ticket sales are said to be going well, something impossible to verify fully. Television rights will bring in $1.8bn, half of which has been paid by America's NBC, which will broadcast 3,600 hours of coverage. Sponsorship is split between 12 global sponsors and 21 national-level sponsors. The global deals are sold on a four-year cycle, incorporating both a winter and a summer Games. For the 2006 Turin, and 2008 Beijing Games, firms paid $72m each. Some, such as long-standing backer Eastman-Kodak, have said they will not renew for 2010 and 2012.


At one point last week, hardly an hour passed without some drug cheat being ejected from the Games: seven Russian women, including 800m and 1500m runner Yelena Soboleva and Athens Olympics silver medallist Tatyana Tomashova, Italian fencer Andrea Baldini, an unnamed Jamaican runner, Italian cyclist Marta Bastianelli, three Romanians... And then there's the Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou. She pulled out of the Athens Games, and was subsequently banned for two years over doping. She says she will compete at Beijing but sports officials have said they are not so sure, and she now threatens to sue. Further illicit substance users may be caught by the testing at the Games. But a far greater fuss awaits if athletes who were hitherto unknown, or middle-ranking performers, suddenly show dramatic improvements, win medals and go undetected.


Spectators won't be aggressively, in-your-face patriotic, as they were during the Atlanta Games of 1996, but there are considerable worries on two other scores. First, that any culture clash – and certain frictions seem inevitable – will be taken as an insult by the overly sensitive Chinese authorities. Second, that the Chinese people, having realised that so much more than mere medals are at stake here, are treating the Beijing Games not so much as the staging of a sporting event but as China Expo '08 – in effect, the biggest trade show the world has ever seen. It remains to be seen, of course, whether London 2012 will be burdened with having a hell of an act to follow or be left with the task of picking up a rather tattered Olympic banner and cleansing it of some of the errors of the movement's most recent past.


These Games will be on a scale and size that make London's of 60 years ago look like a school sports day. Then, there were teams from 59 nations, 4,104 athletes and 17 sports. This month, 10,708 athletes from 205 nations will compete in 28 sports and 302 events. And then there is this year's army of non-combatants: 5,600 press journalists and photographers, 12,000 broadcast staff, plus officials for each team, in each sport – some squads bringing twice as many blazer-wearers as competitors. And those numbers pale beside the quantity of volunteers required to make the events happen. In Beijing there will be some 70,000 volunteers, plus 100,000 police and military on security duty. And, to build nearly two dozen new venues in the past three years, there were in the city at one point around a million migrant workers. Critics ask: how much longer can the Games go on getting bigger?

To have your say on this or any other issue visit