Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 6, 2001

China going all out to snag Olympics

By David Polhemus
Advertiser Editorial Writer

BEIJING — The Chinese — not just the government but the people in the street — want to host the 2008 Olympics so badly they can taste it.

Their competition now is narrowed down to Paris and Toronto, and those are great cities, with worthy infrastructures, safe drinking water and — importantly for athletes — reasonably clean air.

But their sophisticated populations are entirely blase about the idea of tens of thousands of sports aficionados crowding into their subways and airports and restaurants and spending outrageous amounts of money in hopes of seeing someone throw a javelin farther or swim faster than athletes from other countries. In these two cities, it's all about business interests boosting commerce.

China is not in it for the money. It is all about self-respect, from government officials and business leaders to cab drivers and street sweepers. The Chinese are no longer a nation of Mao jackets, lock-step repression and fleets of bicycles, and they badly need the world to take note of it.

Beijing is crowded with billboards proclaiming the fond hope of the Chinese people to host the games, and for once the banners are an accurate reflection. "New Beijing, New Olympics," they say in Chinese.

A number of writers have made a point of a hiccup in translation: In English, it's rendered "New Beijing, Great Olympics." They made it "Great" because they feared Olympics officials might take "New" to imply a Chinese intention to alter the Games or the Olympic spirit in some way.

A lot of the impetus in Beijing predates the Olympics effort. For instance, an amazing spate of tree-planting has been going on for a decade, owing to a recognition that the Gobi Desert is creeping in this direction, and it won't stop unless action is taken to catch the wind-borne sand. It's a practical consideration that has lent a generous touch of beauty to a city that used to be entirely gritty and gray.

In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, in 1999, vast stretches of the old hutongs, low-rise residences, were bulldozed along the main routes to the city's center, giving way to broad, tree-shaded boulevards now lined with glass-fronted office buildings, hotels and shopping centers.

The traffic is still awful but very different. It used to be that if you took a taxi, it would have to pick its way through clots of bicycles. As modernization struck, the bicycles didn't give way to motor scooters, as in so many other big Asian cities. Beijingers leapfrogged straight to private cars. Now traffic is even slower.

The Olympic effort is bringing important improvements to Beijing's air quality. Sure, the air is still awful, and when the IOC's inspection committee visited earlier this year, the government admittedly did a quick fix on air quality, turning off some power generators in cold weather and advising office workers to dress warmly. Lots of visitors complain of coughs and "Beijing flu." But the city has cut back substantially on coal-fired power generation, and reportedly has budgeted $20 million to do more.

The government reportedly has promised to spend $20 billion on pollution control, infrastructure improvements and new venues for Olympic events if it wins the Olympic bid. TV commercials show children playing in crystal-clear water, with vividly blue skies over the Forbidden City and a swinging international night life. It's a stretch, and one wonders how they obtained some of this footage.

But it's not just the government that's getting carried away. People from all walks of life here are talking about the Olympics, and along with great hopes, there's considerable cynicism about the chances that they'll be jobbed the way they feel they were in 1993. That's when they lost to Sydney, Australia, by just two votes on the International Olympic Committee.

The Chinese took it hard. They saw it in terms of rich nations lording it over the poor ones; as just a more modern expression of the "brutal colonialist aggression and exploitation" they suffered in years past.

But they could also point to the political makeup of the International Olympic Committee, on which nearly half the 123 voting members are European. China, 20 percent of the world population, gets three votes.

And the Chinese wonder whether its rocky relations with the United States might cost them the Olympics. True, the United States government has no direct influence on the International Olympic Committee. But it has pull. A House committee in March passed a resolution urging that the Chinese bid be denied because of its human rights violations, and the Bush administration has gotten off to a generally awful start with the Chinese, offending in numerous ways.

But remarkably, the Chinese are adept at building firewalls between issues. They are still angry at the bombing of their Belgrade embassy, and they feel humiliated by the endgame of the EP-3 episode. But these issues do not color their approach to WTO entry or their Olympics bid. "Politics should not mix with the Olympics," a Chinese diplomat told me.

On human rights, there's no denying that China is still at times brutally repressive. But for the average Chinese, conditions have improved steadily and substantially, and the more China opens to the West, the more that process will accelerate. Giving the Olympics to China is a great way to make Beijing's leadership more careful in its internal and external affairs. Can you imagine the People's Liberation Army invading Taiwan with the Olympic Games coming up?

"What the United States does in the name of human rights really rubs people in China the wrong way," said an American businessman in Beijing. "They think — and the Chinese leadership reinforces this — that the U.S. is trying to keep the Chinese people poor by opposing its plans for development with the human rights excuse."

The Olympics committee would be making a huge mistake if it doesn't embrace Beijing wholeheartedly. But I think the Chinese are unlikely to win the Olympics bid because the IOC is all about generating box office and ad revenues these days, and China probably would come up short in that regard.

The Chinese, however, are enthusiastic to a fault. Naively, perhaps, they accept the Games at their idealistic face value. Visitors and athletes would love the welcome they would receive in Beijing. It would be good for the Olympics and good for China.

Advertiser editorial writer David Polhemus is traveling in Asia as a Jefferson Fellow from the East-West Center.