China prepares to welcome world to 2008 Olympics

by John Boudreau

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

21 August 2007

Tourists and locals take pictures in front of a 2008 Beijing Olympics Games count-down clock located on the outside of the National Museum of China in Beijing, China, on Friday, June 22, 2007. There are count-down clocks located throughout the city. (Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News/MCT) 

BEIJING—Hosting the Summer Olympics is a coup for any country, but China regards the 2008 Beijing Games as nothing short of a historic marker of its return to glory.

The Olympics is giving the country a coveted international spotlight reserved for the world’s leading nations. China intends to use that spotlight to display to the world its re-emergence as an economic, cultural and military giant, echoing its ancient dynastic greatness.

“The Chinese have a psychological problem. We want to prove ourselves to the whole world. We are strong and we can be stronger,” said Huang Yaling, director of the Olympic Research Center at the Beijing Sport University. “We need a stage to show this, and the Olympics is that international stage. It is a precious chance.”

With home-field advantage, Team China will face enormous pressure to garner more medals than the United States. The Chinese, though, want more than Olympic gold. They want to pull off a dazzling Olympics that will affirm China’s status as an emerging global power and remind the world that for 2,000 years prior to the late 19th century, China was a dominant economic and cultural force.

Knowing that the Beijing Games will help shape the world’s perceptions of China, the country’s leaders are remaking the capital city with a frenzy of new construction and a flurry of policies aimed at assuring a flawless spectacle. Their challenges include cleaning up the city’s notorious traffic snarls and sky-blotting pollution—two facts of daily life in the capital that they will try to temporarily alter to avoid embarrassing the nation during its Olympic moment. Without appearing to be heavy-handed, Chinese officials also hope to head off legions of protesters—from international human rights activists to disgruntled farmers—who might try to use the Olympics to spotlight their grievances.

“They really want to present a face of the new China, which is a very open society, on the move,” said Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration responsible for U.S. relations with China.

The government is drawing on decades of Communist Party discipline to make sure the massive preparations stay on track. This year alone, more than 40 national and international sports events are being used as test runs for the Olympics.

China will tap its greatest resource for the cause—its people. More than a half-million citizens already have raised their hands to help during the games, and organizers expect as many as a half-million more to sign up before the opening ceremony. Officials plan to dispatch 100,000 volunteers to staff the Olympic venues, and up to 300,000 more across the vast city to assist the expected 550,000 visitors.

China’s volunteers will dwarf those of past Olympics. In fact, there could be at least twice as many Chinese Olympic volunteers as there were for the past three Summer Olympics combined.

“This is very important for the Chinese people,” said Sun Weide, deputy director of communications for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. “It’s a 100-year-old dream come true.”

With the games still a year away, organizing committee officials already are working around the clock.

“Some of them are sleeping in their offices,” observed Kurt Weerheim, an Ohio sports consultant working in Beijing. “The Chinese people are not only hard-working, but they are very gracious. They want people to come here and have the best time of their lives. If any country can do it to perfection, China can.”

With military precision, the government is rearranging large swaths of Beijing as it builds 14 behemoth buildings and renovates another 14 to house Olympic events. It’s spending billions more on infrastructure upgrades, from roads to new subway lines. In all, Beijing is getting a record-breaking $40 billion upgrade for the Olympics.

China’s preparations are so massive and well-orchestrated that they are creating fears of inadequacy in the city scheduled to host the 2012 Olympics. “I have friends in London who are concerned about London not coming up to the standard Peking has set,” said Alfreda Murck, an expert in Chinese art who has lived in Beijing for 10 years and is working in the Forbidden City.

China’s efforts go far beyond merely constructing buildings and digging subway tunnels. For example, Beijing’s bureaucrats have a to-do list crammed with some 200 measures to clear the air for the Olympics. They range from planting nearly 3 million trees a year to relocating factories and even seeding clouds to induce rain. In recent years, the government has spent about $13 billion on environmental measures, much of them undertaken with the Olympics in mind.

A group from the University of Puerto Rico has their picture taken in front of “The Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, China on Tuesday, June 12, 2007. (Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)

“We have so many challenges,” said Sun, on loan to the Beijing Olympics organizing committee from the Foreign Ministry. “We will have to scale down some of the factories—maybe some of the factories will be closed—to ensure we have a clean, beautiful environment for the Beijing Games.”

At least one-third of Beijing’s 3.3 million automobiles will be ordered off the streets during the Olympics, predicted Chen Zhao, director of international and sports news for the People’s Daily, the government newspaper that has been publishing a special weekly Olympics edition for more than a year and a half.

Chen, whose office is decorated with Olympics paraphernalia and who wore an Olympics polo shirt, pointed to 2006, when hundreds of thousands of Beijing drivers were told to leave their vehicles at home during a summit of Chinese and African leaders. Officials told many government workers to take the subway or bus to work, and sent text messages to other residents, appealing to their patriotism in the cause of clean air and calm traffic during the visit of foreign dignitaries.

Beijing officials also face the tough task of keeping the Olympics free of terrorist attacks or even political protests and controversies.

Chinese security officials worry about attacks from terrorist Islamic groups, from abroad and at home. They also fret over a flare-up of the domestic protests that have roiled across China in recent years, said China expert Shirk, author of the new book, “Fragile Superpower: How China’s Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise.” A number of groups could cause problems, including angry farmers, independence-minded Tibetans or followers of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement outlawed by the government.

China’s leaders “feel like they have a tenuous hold on a society that is churning with problems and unrest,” said Shirk, now director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California-San Diego.

During the Olympics, she expects that the Chinese government is “going to try to lock down anybody who might potentially be leading a protest. Meanwhile, the foreign journalists will be trying to find those people. So it will be a cat-and-mouse game.”

There are external political pressures, as well.

Human rights groups, U.S. politicians and Hollywood actors have sharply criticized China for failing to aggressively pressure Sudan to end the killing in Sudan’s violence-plagued Darfur region. China, which buys most of Sudan’s oil, has blocked punitive moves against Sudan by the U.N. Security Council.

Some critics have gone so far as to call for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese government, which insists the Olympics should be free of politics, has responded by appointing a special envoy to Sudan and is committing 275 military engineers to peacekeeping forces in the African country.

Meanwhile, China’s planned “journey of harmony” torch relay has created unharmonious reactions. The torch route—including planned stops in Taipei and Tibet—touched political raw nerves.

Young gymnasts are stretched out at the Beijing Shi Cha Hai Sports School in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, June 20, 2007. (Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)

Young gymnasts are stretched out at the Beijing Shi Cha Hai Sports School in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, June 20, 2007. (Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)

Taiwan, which China claims as one of its provinces though the island functions as a sovereign nation, has so far rejected its assigned role in Beijing’s 85,000-mile, 130-day torch trek. Taiwan’s leaders oppose Beijing’s inclusion of the Taipei leg as part of China’s “domestic route.” But so far, Chinese officials have declined to alter the torch route.

While it already has failed to prevent political dust-ups, China remains determined to host a perfectly choreographed Olympics. And it hopes to reap benefits for this nation of 1.3 billion people that will last for generations.

“The Chinese have been bullied by the Western powers for the last 300 years,” said Victor Wang, who works in Beijing as chief executive of Mtone Wireless, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based provider of mobile phone entertainment services in China. “So they have all these strong emotions. They want to come back to the world stage as a peer.”

Toward that end, Beijing organizers are giving the 2008 Games distinctive Chinese flourishes. For the first time, the Olympics medals will include the popular Asian gemstone jade. The aluminum torch, designed by Lenovo, China’s iconic tech giant that acquired IBM’s computer business in 2005, is shaped like a Chinese scroll. The five Olympic mascots, nicknamed “Fuwa,” or “Five Friendlies,” are popular Chinese animals—fish, panda bear, Tibetan antelope, swallow—and the Olympic flame.

And to guarantee the success of the games, the Beijing Olympics will begin at 8:08 p.m., Aug. 8, 2008. That will take maximum advantage of the number eight, which represents prosperity and good luck.

Beyond the sports venues, China wants the Olympics to showcase its modernization and integration into the global economy. While the communist country keeps a tight lid on the flow of information, and is swift to crack down on political dissent, it has thrown its doors open to multinational corporations and set its economy on a capitalist course. In the major cities, affluent Chinese have embraced everything from Starbucks coffee to short skirts and iPods.

In January, the central government temporarily relaxed travel and other rules on foreign journalists, all in the spirit of the Olympics. Foreigners who arrive at Beijing Capital Airport are now greeted by cheerful-looking immigration officers and asked to rate their performances by clicking a smiling or frowning button.

The government also has set out to improve personal behavior in the city of more than 15 million residents. Officials, who have distributed good-manners pamphlets to 4.3 million families, are encouraging citizens to be more “civilized.” They are being asked not to spit in public and to practice standing in line at bus stops and in the subway during designated “queuing days,” an attempt to lessen the usual rush-hour scrum.

Schoolteacher Liu Jun is already attending all-day sessions for Olympics volunteers that include foreigner etiquette training—such as not eating garlic or other “smelly” foods during the Olympics month. He’s also learning “praise words” for Western women who, instructors tell him, appreciate flattering comments about their appearance.

“We have to learn about the differences so we can be better,” explained Liu, an earnest 29-year-old middle school biology teacher who expects to be one of 8,000 volunteers driving dignitaries around Beijing during the Olympics.

“The Chinese government has an incredible dedication to making the Olympics a monumental success,” observed Beijing-based Christopher Reynolds, co-founder of China Fine Art Partners, a private equity fund investing in Chinese art. “This is China’s debutant party.”

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