With a month to go until Olympics, China grows anxious

A guard keeps visitors off the new track inside the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium in Beijing.
A guard keeps visitors off the new track inside the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium in Beijing. Tim Johnson / MCT

BEIJING — These will be no ordinary Olympic Games. They will be the most extravagant ever put on, designed to dazzle the world and display China's reclaimed status as a major world power.

Reaching into its deep pockets, China has erected awe-inspiring new buildings and sports venues, spending an estimated $40 billion, or three times as much as Athens did four years ago.

On display will be China's rising economic clout and its national pride, but under the glamour one can also see the nation's penchant for social control, its aggrievement at the world, and its polluted skies. And the games all begin on a superstitious note. They get under way at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8 because Chinese consider eight a lucky number.

As the games unfold, the pressure will rise. Some 100,000 security agents will try to keep a firm lid on domestic and foreign dissent, and jittery national leaders will keep their fingers crossed that the Aug. 8-24 games prove exceptional, and that China's athletes reap a huge haul of medals and boost sometimes wavering national self-esteem.

"China wants to host good — possibly the best — Olympic Games ever," said Shen Dingli, an expert on international relations at Shanghai's Fudan University. "It also hopes to come in with the most gold (medals), and possibly No. 1 in all medals."

To do that, Chinese athletes will have to oust the United States from atop the medals table, and shave medals from traditional Olympics powerhouses like Russia, Germany, Japan and Australia.

"We think they will take medals off all the top nations," said Mike Tancred, media director for the Australian Olympic Committee.

But the optimism over the Summer Games has been tempered by a string of misfortunes and calamities this year, including massive snowstorms in February, fierce ethnic rioting in Tibet in March and a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province May 12 that killed some 70,000 people.

China's unabashed hopes for the games soured considerably in April when its Olympic torch relay ran into protests abroad from activists angry over China's treatment of Tibet, its support for Sudan or other matters. The alarm sounded that activists wanted to slip into China and embarrass the nation further during the games.

In response, China has hunkered down. It is warning of terrorism threats during the games, limiting visas to foreigners and mounting massive security measures around this capital of 16 million people. Guards check bags at subway entrances, and police frequently ask for IDs, leading one local English-language magazine to label the games the "Securolympics." Monitors reportedly even have stickers ready to cover up political messages on the T-shirts of foreign visitors.

"I don't think the leadership is going to look back at this as their finest hour," said June Teufel Dreyer, a China expert at the University of Miami.

Hosting the Olympics has been a long endeavor for China, and it took some unusual promises to get the chance to do so. After losing out to Sydney to host the 2000 Summer Games, China sweetened its offer for the 2008 Games, telling the International Olympic Committee that winning the bid would help China open to the world.

"By allowing Beijing to host the games, you will help the development of human rights," asserted Liu Jingmin, vice president of the Beijing Olympic bid committee.

In fact, human rights groups say that China has not fulfilled the promise, and has even tightened its grip on people viewed as "troublemakers" in the run-up to the Olympics.

After three decades of galloping economic growth, most Chinese are fiercely proud of their nation's rise and see sniping about matters like human rights as inspired by China's foreign critics. It needles them and puts them in a rather tortured dilemma.

They strive to be gracious Olympic hosts, fulfilling the Confucian edict to treat visitors well who come from afar. Yet they seethe at what they say are attempts by foreigners to use issues like bloodshed in the Darfur region of Sudan (a major oil provider to China), and Chinese handling of Tibet as ways to keep their country down.

Jin Yuanpu, director of the Humanistic Olympics Studies Center at People's University, embodied those dual feelings as he sat for an interview.

"We want to tell the whole world that we are a country with 5,000 years of history. We are not just a country that makes shoes and hats," Jin said.

But as the conversation unfolded, Jin grew visibly agitated, saying that many Chinese can no longer tolerate the harsh attitudes of the West toward their homeland.

"I don't believe any American media will publish my words fairly!" Jin said.

The anger latent in China over any number of issues is a curious counterpart to the staggering economic growth plainly visible in Beijing, a capital remade for the Olympics. Visitors arrive at the world's largest airplane terminal, a soaring structure.

Over at the Olympic Green, what appears to be a tangle of girders is the striking "Bird's Nest" National Stadium. Near it is the translucent "Water Cube" aquatics center. Four new subway lines or extensions are opening in the weeks before the games. Top chefs, like Daniel Boulud, of his eponymous Daniel restaurant in New York City, have opened new restaurants here.

"One clear legacy of the games is a dramatic change in the environment of Beijing," said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California at Irvine and author of China's Brave New World.

The boom has its downside. Each day, some 1,200 new cars on average add to the jams on the capital's roads. To ease traffic and fight smog during the games, officials are ordering cars off the road in a rotating plan based on whether license plates end in an odd or even number.

"The key challenge is to see whether this Draconian measure will indeed succeed in improving air quality," Victor Gao, director of the China National Association of International Studies, told state television.

Air quality is a more serious issue than at any Olympic Games in decades, and many athletes will train abroad in cleaner environs until only a day or so before their events.

China has shut down polluting factories or moved them away from the city, and halted construction projects that raise the dust that occasionally coats the city.

China glosses over the air pollution problems by declaring, in an Orwellian twist of language, that any day when the outline of the sun can be seen through the smog is a "blue sky day."

That penchant for dictating public thought and behavior also was apparent last month when the ruling Communist Party's Office of Spiritual Civilization and Guidance helped created an Olympics patriotic cheer, encouraging spectators to cheer alike.

One of the fears underlying the official campaign for such conformity, said Liu Xiaobo, a writer and political dissident, is concern that ugly nationalism might emerge from the stands during the games.

"The government is afraid of unfriendly crowd behavior toward foreign countries, especially the Japanese," Liu said. "If there are not a lot of police there, some very bad, angry behavior will happen."

Wasserstrom, the historian, said China's leaders are certain to bear a lot of pressure as the games unfold and public expectations soar.

"It's a very risky moment for the regime," Wasserstrom said. "If there's a feeling that the government didn't handle things well, then you could have this nationalist sentiment twist into a kind of criticism of the government."

Certainly at some point, foreign activists may slip through the security net to protest before the cameras. Economist Hu Xingdou said officials would be wise to pay little heed.

"Maybe some foreigners will shout 'Free Tibet' or something like that, but we shouldn't take it too seriously," Hu said. "In Western countries, that's very normal. People shout slogans every day."


The official Beijing Olympics site.

McClatchy's China blog.