We stood with the throngs on the night of July 13, 2001 waiting to hear who would win the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The tension was mounting remembering the previous failed attempt. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) read the result as we watched on the outdoor, big screen television: “The host of the 29th Summer Olympic Games is—Beijing!”
People were jumping up and down and screaming. We got in our car as did thousands of others to spontaneously celebrate in Tiananmen Square. Two miles from the square the traffic was at a standstill. Making use of the opportunity, we got out of the car and ran up and down the road giving high fives and calling out in Chinese, “Congratulations China!” The smiles stretched from ear to ear as you could feel their pride and self-worth rise. They enthusiastically honked because foreigners were happy for them and in that way accepting them. I will always remember the deep joy and excitement that we shared together that historic evening.
There is a pride and deep longing in the Chinese to be accepted and treated as equals in this world. Because of this, China wants to prove to the world that she has arrived and deserves to be respected as a people and a world power. This is the first time for China to host the Olympics and showcase their abilities to the entire world, and they have taken this opportunity very, very seriously. They have built impressive Olympic structures, the opening and closing ceremonies will be precise and spectacular (although three and a half hours long), not to mention the massive undertaking of holding and coordinating such a monstrous event. This will probably be the grandest and most impressive Games in Olympic history, but China also wants to be the star of their own party by winning the most number of Olympic medals, which is truly within their grasp.
Is China ready for the world to converge upon its country? Beijing Olympic organizers say more than 10,000 athletes will compete in the Games and more than two million domestic and foreign visitors are expected to visit Beijing. China is spending $60 billion on Olympic-related preparations; four times as much as any previous host.
With China’s rapid development, what has been accomplished in the country that without the Games would not have transpired so quickly? Thousands of Olympic articles in foreign newspapers have been written regarding China’s deficiencies such as in human rights, pollution, dealings with Darfur, and so on. This is one of the few articles focusing on what has been accomplished as a direct result of holding the Games; however, I will also list a few aspects which still need work. This is not a propaganda article about all the glorious successes of the Communist Party; it is an objective analysis from daily observation with comparison from over the years. After all, in living here long-term we do not want band-aid solutions for a month-long superficial image.
Leadership Listening to Thoughts of Change
The IOC has stated that the Beijing Olympics “are a force for good” in opening up the country. I do not believe it will open up the country, but it has had profound effects in helping China to be aware of international standards. In the past, if another nation suggested that China needed to change, the immediate response was, “Don’t interfere in our internal affairs.” In a nutshell, that means, “You have no right to say what we can and can’t do; get your nose out of our business. You take care of your country’s problems and we’ll take care of ours!” Suddenly, because China will be hosting the Olympics, how China is handling situations has become the world’s business. This has been a seven-year window of time in which the world has been able to introduce international standards and expectations and encourage compliance. The government does not want to “lose face” in front of the whole world, so this has been an opportune time to push for needed changes. (By the way, in this shame-based culture, the most common motivator used in everyday life is shame.) Thirty thousand foreign journalists are expected. The country’s political and social structure will never come under more external scrutiny and criticism.
Transportation. Since the bid, the government has prioritized developing the mass transit system. This has been a great need as the city only had two subway lines. By the start of the Olympics, there will be seven subway and light rail lines covering about 124 miles. Even so, these added trains are still packed and traffic congestion remains a serious problem as there are three million cars in Beijing with 1,000 new cars being added each day! Although most foreigners will not dare to brave the bus or subway system during the Olympics, the new system is helping out the millions who utilize it daily.
The 75-mile long Beijing–Tianjin passenger railway is scheduled to open for the Olympics. It will be the fastest high-speed, long-distance train in China which can reach 217 mph and will shorten travel time between the two cities from 70 to 30 minutes.
Another long-term benefit is the new Terminal 3 at the Beijing Capital International Airport. It is the world’s largest airport building with over ten million square feet of interior space. The terminal building alone cost $2.8 billion; $4.6 billion when including the entire related infrastructure. The terminal has a rail system which can transport passengers into the city within 16 minutes. The airport is expected to be the fifth busiest airport in the world by the end of the year and can have a total annual transport capacity of about 82 million passengers. These visitors will also affect continued change and modernization.
Venues. China has built 37 new competition venues which can be used for years to come. Beijing is the site of 31 of those venues; 12 are new, 11 renovated, and eight are temporary structures. The true test will be judged following the Olympics by the availability and frequency of use. It has been clear that China, unlike Athens, would have no trouble completing the venues in time. Four hundred million dollars were spent on its showcase, the 91,000 seat “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium.
Some of the Olympic sites will be converted to other uses following the Games. The 17,000 seat National Aquatics Center, better known as the “Water Cube,” will be converted to a shopping area and recreation center with restaurants and nightclubs. The Beijing Olympic Village will be converted into luxury condominiums after the Olympics. These six and nine story apartments have already been sold and will open in 2009.
Support Venues. Hospitals throughout the city have undergone intense renovations. China is building at least 109 new hotels to accommodate Olympic travelers. In contrast, I remember when there were a handful of hotels that foreigners were allowed to stay in.
Volunteers. The Games are encouraging true volunteerism/altruism. This is especially interesting because this is not a place where people readily volunteer. China can now lay claim to the world’s largest volunteer project in history. Of the 730,000 people who applied to be volunteers at the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games, 100,000 are being selected, most of whom are recent university graduates. There will be roughly 70,000 volunteers for the Olympic Games and 30,000 for the Paralympic Games. I remember meeting the person responsible for all of the volunteers and am still in awe of the responsibility on his shoulders. In a country where you are generally told you will be a volunteer (see the contradiction), it is nice to see kids who are excited to serve and want to help their country.
English Fever. China has been hit with English fever. This includes neighborhood English clubs, standard tests that taxi drivers must pass to keep their jobs, university students getting together to memorize and chant crazy, English slogans and English education starting in first grade. Menus have standardized translations in 10,000 restaurants. Now that’s coordination! But, that is both good news and bad news as it takes the humor out of reading the menus.
The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) even has a committee to change all signs to proper English. Unfortunately, there are many more signs that need help.
Air Quality. Pollution is still quite serious but at least China is now thinking about it after all of the focused, negative press and the statement by the IOC that certain Olympic events would need to be postponed until the air quality reaches appropriate standards. Nearly a dozen factories are in the process of closing or relocating outside Beijing including a huge steelworks factory with 120,000 employees.
During the Olympics, vehicles with odd and even plate numbers will take turns on the road. This will reduce the number of cars on the roads by 1.5 million each day. Daily there are also 60,000 taxis on the road.
With its pledge of a smoke-free Olympics, Beijing will ban smoking in most public places, aimed at meeting China’s pledge. Please, please keep this rule in place after the Games. After all, China has one-third of the world’s smokers!
The government will seed the clouds and do what it needs to during those weeks. I am not as concerned about the air during the Olympic Games because I remember the week of beautiful blue skies when the IOC came during the bidding process. I am more concerned about what color the skies will be in the days and years following the Olympics when the world’s eyes are not on Beijing anymore.
Media. The government regularly blocks Chinese access to many foreign news websites and blogs. The IOC has insisted that at least the 30,000 journalists must have unblocked internet access. China’s obligations under the “host city agreement” will help to propel a three-week unprecedented openness of internet and television broadcasting. Chinese broadcasts will continue to be highly controlled, but foreign broadcasts will certainly tell the good with the bad. Also, other technologies will be difficult to control such as video capability in cameras and cell phones. This is a great learning experience for the Chinese leadership because it is the free media that has the greatest ability to directly challenge the tight control of the Communist Party. This relative loosening will last through the closing ceremonies, and then it will be back to business as usual. However, at least they will have had the experience of seeing that somewhat loosened media is not the worst thing in the world (although it may feel like it).
During the 17 days of competition, 2500 hours of sport programs will air. That is 1,000 more hours of broad-casting than during the 2004 Athens Olympics. The expected television viewing audience is more than four billion people! China was completely closed to the outside world 30 years ago; now about 2/3 of the world will have an in-depth, multifaceted, somewhat transparent view of this country!
International Property Rights (IPR). China has stepped up efforts to protect the intellectual property rights of Olympic products. This is a good experience so that the government will recognize damages caused by infringement violations.
Although China has been working hard to prepare for the Games, there are still some areas that need serious attention. A few of the problem areas are:
- Great difficulty obtaining tickets.
- Logistical nightmares: Efficiency and convenience are not China’s strong points, so venues are not well marked with appropriate signs, the most convenient doors are not open, and there are few places to park.
- Normal, chaotic driving: Tourists’ #1 comment will continue to be, “How did we survive that trip across town?”
- Limited hotel rooms available at outrageous costs: Rooms are up to ten times the rack rates.
- Government officials’ heightened distrust of foreigners: With so many activists coming with their own agendas, officials do not know who to trust.
For the last two decades, China has been the most rapidly advancing country in the world. Amidst this speed of development, they have been going even faster. Winning the bid for the Olympic Games has propelled them to round-the-clock work to make sure they are prepared for that upcoming date—8/8/08. The country revolves around this date daily. Countdown clocks throughout the city tick down every hour, minute and second for the Games to begin and have done so for the past seven years! We can applaud the work that has been accomplished and can be thankful for the catalytic role the Olympics have and are playing. This is certainly an unprecedented time in China’s long history.
Image credit: Beijing 008 by Bob, on Flickr