Countdown to the Beijing Games

In less than a year, the eyes of the world will be on China, as the 2008 Summer Olympics get under way. How is China’s authoritarian regime approaching the challenge?

What do the Olympics mean for China?
Far more than a mere sporting event, they may well be the biggest coming-out party in history. China is using the Games to herald its emergence as an economic superpower, just as the 1936 Berlin Games showcased Nazi Germany’s military might. With spectacular pageants, superior organization, and an army of workers to bring it all off, the Chinese hope to show that their once fiercely isolated nation has fully joined the world community. “The Games show off our achievements from 30 years of opening up,” said Qin Xiaoying of the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies. “In sport, too, we were ‘the sick man of East Asia.’ But now Chinese athletes win gold, silver, and bronze.”

Will China be ready for the Olympics?
There is little doubt. While the 2004 Athens Olympics were plagued by delays and snafus, preparations for the 2008 Games are moving forward with military precision. Beijing is a riot of construction, with cranes swinging thousands of beams through the sky, tons of concrete being poured, and the sounds of jackhammers, buzz saws, and other tools ripping the air. Some 30,000 laborers are working around the clock according to a strict timetable. An estimated 550,000 volunteers will be on hand to deal with an equal number of visitors. China’s authoritarianism makes for cost-effective security; the government is spending about $300 million on police, anti-terrorist measures, and other precautions, compared to the $1.4 billion spent at Athens. But all told, the Chinese will spend about $40 billion—more than twice the cost of Athens—on 37 venues and infrastructure upgrades. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen preparation on this scale,” said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.

What can we expect to see?

The biggest athletic project is the National Stadium, which will seat 91,000 and constitute the world’s largest enclosed space. Nicknamed the Bird’s Nest because of its tangle of twig-like steel, it is being built by 5,000 workers at a cost of $386 million. Next door is the $125 million National Aquatics Center, resembling a giant ice cube covered in a membrane of bubbles. Beijing Capital International Airport is being doubled in size, at a cost of $3.6 billion. To head off a transportation nightmare, the size and capacity of the city’s subway system are also being doubled. Among numerous other touches, 200 million new trees are to be planted in time for the opening ceremonies. But the Chinese people are already paying a heavy price for their leaders’ ambitions.

How are the Games affecting ordinary Chinese?
Many have been devastated. It’s estimated that the Olympics are uprooting or displacing some 1.5 million of Beijing’s 17 million inhabitants. Sun Ruoyu, 55, is typical: Her house in the historic Qianmen area is slated to be razed in favor of a new shopping district. So far, she has resisted government offers of as much as $200,000 for the building. “No matter what they offer, I won’t be able to afford an apartment here,” she says. “They’ve used the Olympics to strip people of their property. They’re doing things against the spirit of the Olympics.”

Are there other problems?
Many, starting with China’s notorious pollution. Athletes are extremely concerned about the sickening combination of car exhaust, factory smoke, and Gobi Desert sand that suffuses the Beijing air. IOC chief Rogge has said that if the air doesn’t improve, some outdoor Olympic events might have to be postponed. In response, Beijing has closed 200 of its dirtiest factories and is upgrading major coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions. An experimental four-day ban last month on cars reduced the levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide up to 20 percent. In all, Beijing is expected to spend more than $3 billion on anti-pollution measures over the next year. But a different kind of cloud also hangs over the Olympics: China’s horrid human-rights record.

How is that a factor?
To help win the Games, the Chinese pledged to the IOC that they would enact human-rights reforms and allow greater media freedom. These promises have largely turned out to be empty. Amnesty International says China continues to engage in “gross human-rights abuses.” This summer, for example, Chinese children as young as 12 were discovered working up to 15 hours a day to package licensed stationery products for the Games. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that reporters in China are still censored, arrested, beaten, and jailed—which raises serious questions about whether the 12,000 accredited journalists who will descend on Beijing for the Games will be able to do their jobs. Rights groups are worried that when it comes time for the Games, the suppression will get even more severe.

Are they right to be concerned?
Yes. China is among the world’s most tightly controlled countries, and officials are doing their best to ensure that viewers see only what they want them to see. So despite international pressure, the Beijing Olympics will probably have little political theater. “There is no indication the Chinese will change any of their policies,” said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. “They will follow the Moscow model from 1980. They’ll just arrest everybody [who protests] and ship them a thousand miles away.”