One Month to Go – Beijing Prepares to Deliver

By Nick Mulvenney

BEIJING (Reuters) – With a month remaining until the opening ceremony of one of the most scrutinized Olympic Games in history, the time has come for Beijing to deliver on seven years of promises and billions of dollars spent.

On July 13, 2001, the state news agency Xinhua hailed the decision to award the Olympic Games to Beijing as being a “milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.”

Six months ago, preparations were going to plan with gleaming new venues and infrastructure almost completely in place for the August 8-24 Games.

But violent unrest in Tibet in March followed by global anti-Chinese protests have marred Beijing’s final countdown to the Games. Moreover, the threat of terrorism and pollution have presented the Communist authorities with new challenges.

However, with the 31 venues completed and the army of migrant workers putting the finishing touches to a $40 billion upgrade of the city’s once-creaking infrastructure, organizers are upbeat.

“We are fully prepared for the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games,” organizing committee (BOCOG) vice president Jiang Xiaoyu said last week. “We are going to use the last 36 days to further perfect the arrangements.”

China’s rulers wanted to use the Games to promote internal stability and show off a confident, increasingly influential economic power to the rest of the world.
After the public relations disaster of the March 14 Tibet riots and the protest-disrupted international leg of the Olympic torch relay, some have questioned whether China’s leaders care anymore about external opinion.

“China wants the Olympics to be applauded by the international community and at the same time instill a sense of pride in the Chinese people,” said Jiang Qisheng of the China chapter of International PEN, an association founded to defend freedom of expression.

“But stability is more important. International applause is ranked only second. If forced to choose, China would rather have stability.”

The May 12 Sichuan earthquake and the genuine outpouring of emotion over the death of nearly 70,000 people altered some perceptions of China, turning the award of the Olympics “from obscene accolade to worthy reward” in the words of British commentator Simon Jenkins.

Terrorism Concern

But visa restrictions for visitors, plans to rid Beijing of petitioners, the homeless and migrant workers as well as the tight control of the media on “sensitive” legs of the domestic torch relay point to obsessive stage-management.

China says it views terrorism as the biggest threat to the Games and a 100,000-strong anti-terrorism force is already on alert.

Rights groups say Beijing is using the threat of terrorism to suppress internal dissent, especially in the restive far-Western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, which is home to more than 8 million Muslim Uighurs.

“We are worried that there will be an even more wide-scale crackdown on the Uighur people, especially over the next month,” said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress.

“China is using the final opportunity the Olympics presents to portray Uighurs to the international community as terrorists. We have always opposed China holding the Olympics. We are the biggest victims of it, even more so than the Tibetans.”

Free Tibet is asking British athletes to express support for its cause by making a “T for Tibet” sign during the Games, it said in a statement on Monday.
American, Dutch and Australian athletes have already indicated their intention to express their concerns about human rights during the Games.

Algae Stench

The stench of the algae in the city of Qingdao, which will host the Olympic sailing events, has been a vivid reminder that environmental concerns still dog the Games.

Of more pressing concern to most athletes is the air quality in the capital and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said some endurance events might be rescheduled if the pollution presents a health risk.

The surrounding provinces of Hebei and Tianjin ordered factory closures this month and four others are also involved in the effort to keep the Beijing skies clear.

Beijing has spent more than 120 billion yuan on environmental improvements over the last decade and its own contingency plans will come into force mainly from July 20.

China’s athletes have continued to prepare for the Games away from the prying eyes of the media.

Life bans for two Olympic hopefuls caught doping this year — swimmer Ouyang Kunpeng and wrestler Luo Meng — have left them in no doubt that the authorities do not want to lose face at their own party with any positive tests.

(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim, Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)


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