Beijing's final countdown


The Olympics marks China's long-awaited coming-out party, writes Clifford Coonanin Beijing

WHEN YOU MENTION the Olympics in Beijing, there is a Chinese proverb you are likely to hear from smiling retirees practising their tai chi early in the morning in the city's lovely parks, or from hungry bureaucrats scoffing noodles in a bustling jiaozi restaurant, or even from the migrant workers from Sichuan and Anhui building the new megalopolis. It is "bai nian bu yu", which is best translated as "We've been waiting 100 years for this". The 2008 Olympic Games are China's big coming-out party and everything is going to work, no matter what.

Pollution hangs like a dirty grey blanket over the city, human rights and press freedom promises have been sidestepped and security is so tight it feels like the city could burst under the pressure, but you just know that the Olympics are going to be amazing. The reason why they will succeed is because everyone in this city, and in the whole of China, wants them to work. Take the fervour and anticipation in Ireland before Pope John Paul II's visit in 1979, treble it, and you get the idea.

The excitement is very unusual in China. People tend to be reserved, to go their own way and are unhappy when singled out for attention. But everyone is up for the Olympics - ask anyone in this city of nearly 18 million people. Ask the no-longer-grumpy taxi drivers who have been told to spruce up and get their cabs smelling right for the expected wave of visitors. Ask the hugely smiling women selling dumplings near the Workers' Stadium, their arms red from the steam. Ask the straight-backed soldiers walking up and down Jianguomenwai, one of Beijing's main thoroughfares, who have taken to saying hello in English before checking your passport.

"Everyone is so excited by this. Beijing will be the best city in the world in the near future. China's economy is getting better, now the whole world will come here and see what a great place Beijing is and how we've improved. This shows that we've arrived on the world stage," says Mo Longguo, an engineer in his 30s who is only too happy to stop and talk to the foreign media about the games - a sharp contrast to times past when foreign correspondents were technically forbidden to speak to ordinary people, and vice versa.

Mo is smiling and almost physically eager to communicate his excitement about the games, a common reaction in a city transformed.

The Olympics will involve a total investment of €25 billion; 10,500 athletes will compete for 302 gold medals. There will be 91,000 people watching in the National Stadium. Altogether, 550,000 international visitors and 2.4 million domestic spectators are due in Beijing, with more than 800 star-class hotels and 4,000 hostels providing about 420,000 rooms.

"These are changes for the good. Many Chinese people want to give a better impression internationally, and this is a great opportunity to do that," says one young design magazine editor. "The important question is what do you want. The Olympics is a chance for Chinese people to stop and think. It's a chance to show foreigners our great new city, but it's also a chance to think about our past and the future."

Constructing a city for the future has meant changing the Beijing of the past. Huge swathes of the old city have been knocked down to make way for the biggest reconstruction programme since Beijing, the "Northern Capital", was constructed in the 14th century. Built by master builders along strict cosmological lines, it was centred on an axis around the Forbidden City, with the Temple of Heaven and the Temple of the Sun as key points.

But there have been some efforts to salvage at least some of what remains of the city's heritage. Only one-third of Beijing's ancient hutongs, or alleys, still exist - most have been demolished or partially destroyed to make way for new developments.

After wide-scale destruction, urban planners and enlightened developers are trying to save some of the ancient courtyard houses lining the city's hutongs, along with landmarks of the Communist era, as well as safeguarding cultural institutions such as Peking Opera in the face of modern impulses.

IN THE CITY'S 798 art district, a former industrial zone that is home to the city's thriving contemporary art scene, young Chinese models are walking up and down a runway to a throbbing disco beat, modelling Triumph lingerie, while supermodel Helena Christensen, star photographer Ellen von Unwerth and designers Viktor Rolf nod approvingly.

Young Chinese women check out the lingerie on offer, while young men in Versace and Dolce Gabbana jackets smirk appreciatively. But in this East German-built factory, where the glitterati now sip dry Australian white wine, workers once assembled warheads and missiles. "Chairman Mao is a great leader" in bold characters still adorns the wall outside the fashion show. And those same workers would have worn Mao suits, all the same style, day in, day out, with a considerably poorer range of lingerie to choose from.

Since Mao Zedong died in 1976, China has seen a remarkable three decades of reform. Not political reform as such - the Communist Party is still the same organisation that brought you the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, although its focus has changed slightly in the intervening years. But economic reform, begun under former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978, has brought double-digit economic growth to the country and a new openness that means China is a vastly different place from 1976. It's also very different from June 1989, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in central Beijing and other cities around China to crush the last organised pro-democracy movement.

The 2008 Olympics mark China's emergence from this remarkable period of opening up, and the Communist Party has sought to ally the games with the 30th anniversary of the reform process under Deng.

One of the slinky models in the show is 19-year-old Mo Wandan, a rising star in the booming fashion industry, who was born in the year of the democracy protests. Ancient history for her generation, certainly not something widely discussed.

Originally from Guangzhou, Mo has been based in Beijing for three years. The capital, long considered a sleepy if powerful city, is now giving perennially chic Shanghai a run for its money in the coolness stakes, as the Olympic effect translates into serious social muscle.

Mo is taking part in the opening ceremony on August 8th in the Olympic stadium known as the Bird's Nest. Supermodel poise easily gives way to girlish delight at taking part in what will be the biggest show in the world on the night, directed by legendary Chinese film director Zhang Yimou.

"The Olympics have changed China. The Olympics have made such a positive difference to China, and it just gets better and better. They bring good luck too," she says.

Mo's success has brought her to Milan, Paris, London, New York and Seoul, but for her, Beijing is just the best. She says she is the best model in China and these will be the best Olympics ever. There is no shortage of confidence in Beijing these days.

There is also no shortage of Fuwas, the five Olympic mascots. They go by the names Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini, which, when all spelled out together spells "Beijing Welcomes You". These little dolls have been a huge success, and the Beijing organisers are selling a range of 4,000 products featuring the five animals. They are everywhere, on every bus stop, every can of soft drink.

But the Fuwas are also central to a superstitious curse doing the rounds on the internet. An important aspect of the Olympics is to signal closure to the horrific events that have blighted the country this year, linked to the "Curse of the Fuwa".

One Fuwa is a panda, the symbol of earthquake province Sichuan. Another resembles a torch, which is said to represent the protests against the international Olympic torch relay. A Tibetan antelope is seen as a symbol of the unrest in that region in March, while a swallow that looks like a kite has been linked to a train crash in Shandong province. The final Fuwa, a fish, has been linked to widespread flooding this month in southern and central China.

The environment has been a key participant in the games since day one. Back then, Beijing promised a Green Olympics, with environmentally sustainable solutions for everything from street lighting to sewage. Some of these measures have been introduced, but the city will be lucky if it is not enveloped in a yellow-tinged smoggy soup when the marathon runners take to the streets. 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.

Everyone is being encouraged to do their civic duty to make sure the air is at least breathable for the games. The mighty mills of Beijing Capital Steel, one of China's leading steel makers and the capital city's major polluter, are silent as it cuts output and pollution by 70 per cent for the Olympics. And recent rainfall suggests the government has been seeding the clouds, blasting the air with silver iodine rockets to make it rain, clearing the smog and keeping dust at bay.

AS WELL AS pollution, it seems that Beijing has largely abandoned its promises to improve the human rights situation that it made when it was granted the right to hold the games in July 2001. At the time, the Chinese government pledged media freedom, better human rights and unprecedented openness for the games. Last year it removed reporting restrictions on foreign journalists based here, but has done nothing for domestic media, and if anything it has made things more difficult for human rights defenders in recent weeks as it has sought to stifle dissent in the run-up.

In April, China's best known human rights defender, Hu Jia, who has spoken out on Aids, Tibetan autonomy and free speech, was jailed for three and a half years for "inciting to subvert state power" by writing articles about freedom and talking to foreign journalists.

A mild-mannered, slight figure who suffers from hepatitis B, 34-year-old Hu was detained by police in late December after spending more than 200 days under house arrest in his Beijing apartment complex. His line has consistently been that, while very proud that China was holding the Olympics, he does not like the way the games have been hijacked by the Communist Party. It's a point of view that cost him his freedom, as well as that of his wife, Zeng Jinyan, who remains under house arrest with their infant daughter.

Hu's conviction for criticising the Chinese Communist Party signalled a wider crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the games. Other human rights defenders, such as underground church leader Hua Huiqi, were told to shut up in June as part of this crackdown.

At the time, Hu Jia's sentencing seemed odd, either naive or arrogant. After all, this was an Olympic year, and perhaps authorities could have turned a blind eye until after the games. But the timing was probably quite canny - as Deng Xiaoping said after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, "The West always forgets". While Hu Jia will be a name mentioned during the games, his sentencing is a little distant now.

There are not that many more foreigners on the streets of Beijing yet, largely because many of the city's already sizeable expatriate population is out of town for the summer, but that will change, and change fast. At the Sir Norman Foster-designed Terminal Three of Beijing airport, the queues for taxis are long, and many of those waiting are tourists coming to the city for the games. Yet foreign tourists have not come in the numbers that people expected - nearly half the rooms in four-star hotels are still empty, while big companies such as GE have block-booked some of the city's higher-end hotels.

When foreign journalists started to arrive at the state-of-the-art press centre, they quickly noticed that China had not kept its promise to get rid of online censorship and they were forced to deal with a slower online connection than they had in Sydney in 2000. It emerged that International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials made a deal to let China block sensitive websites despite promises of unrestricted web access. The news has been an embarrassment for the IOC, which had repeatedly said foreign press would not face any internet curbs in Beijing. But so close to the games, these kind of embarrassments do not last long and, sure enough, the government relented and lifted the curbs..

Examining why the IOC has decided to allow Beijing so much leeway on pollution and human rights is easier to understand when you examine some of the sums of money involved.

The IOC makes money from the TV rights - in Beijing's case, the US broadcaster NBC has signed a contract worth nearly €650 million to broadcast the events - as well as revenues from 11 big global sponsors, called the Olympic Partners, including China's Lenovo, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, General Electric, Samsung and Panasonic. The IOC is predicting a profit from the 2008 games, which may exceed the record €190 million made by the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

In the final analysis, issues such as human rights and pollution are probably not going to be the big stories of this Olympics, once the games themselves get under way.

"The Olympics really has changed China, especially Beijing," says 26-year-old Zhang Dandan, who works in public relations. "Beijing has built new subways, highways and worked very hard on environmental protection. I know some foreign media are focusing on the environment, but in some ways that's a good form of supervision, which will make China do a much better job."

"The Olympics gives China an opportunity to show itself in front of the world. Since the earthquake, Chinese people feel more deeply about what China means to themselves and what life really is. The Olympics is an important event, not only to China, but also to the whole world. I think we will host this Olympics successfully."