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Not a cloud in the way
08 August 2007
by Rowan Callick

A woman mops the floor in front of a Beijing Olympics volunteers poster in Beijing August 7, 2007. Preparations for next year's Beijing Olympics are on track, organisers said on Monday, shrugging off concerns about food safety, pollution and accusations it has not lived up to its media freedom pledge. The poster reads, "A volunteer's smile is the best name card for Beijing". REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV (China)A woman mops the floor in front of a Beijing Olympics volunteers poster in Beijing August 7, 2007. Preparations for next year's Beijing Olympics are on track, organisers said on Monday, shrugging off concerns about food safety, pollution and accusations it has not lived up to its media freedom pledge. The poster reads, "A volunteer's smile is the best name card for Beijing". REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV (China)
China has decreed that it will not rain on the main stadium during the Beijing Olympics next year. This iron-clad assurance comes from Zhang Qiang, the head of Beijing's Weather Manipulation Office, who says "we will provide a guarantee" the stadium will not be rained on through the use of anti-aircraft guns to seed silver iodide sticks into clouds that dare drift towards the arena, thus causing any rain to fall well short.

But organisers and the Government will need more than anti-aircraft guns to conquer the other great challenges facing China before President Hu Jintao formally opens the Games on the auspicious eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year.

The two big issues are combating pollution and creating an open-minded, user-friendly army of 100,000 volunteers capable of meeting the demands of a half-million foreigners in a stranger world than some may have imagined.

A few days before the one-year countdown began today, a visit to the highly secure central Games site dubbed the Bird's Nest, and the Australian-designed "water cube" swimming venue showed these two great signature buildings are near completion.

But they were shrouded, like the rest of the city of 15 million, in a thick soup of pollution that stings the eyes and causes the locals to cough and spit in the street, despite public campaigns to stop the habit of a lifetime.

The Government has been shifting heavy industry out of the city into neighbouring provinces, and it has already demonstrated during a summit of 43 African leaders last November that it can cut traffic by half simply by taking all state-supplied cars off the road. That involves more than one million vehicles, which are being registered in Beijing at the rate of 1000 a day.

In the middle of the hottest summer in several decades, there's very little coal being burned in Beijing, so the extent of the continuing pollution remains a deep concern. Organisers have extended the reach of their environmental measures to the surrounding five provinces, from where foul winds often blow. It's just as well the Australian Olympic team has recruited an asthma specialist.

Beijing is also spending $50 million on sanitising its mainly squat toilets, to ensure visitors don't find themselves holding their breath for other reasons.

About 540,000 people have applied to be volunteers at the Games, with 70,000 needed for the main event and a further 30,000 required for the Paralympics a month later.

Xu Zhijun, the deputy director of human resources at the Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, says the finalists, including international volunteers - some from Australia - will be selected later this year in the traditional Chinese manner, by examinations. Chinese volunteers will need to speak a second language, and the foreigners, numbering 40,000 so far, Mandarin.

The exams, says Xu, will test "the quality and devoted spirit of the volunteers, and also their knowledge of the Olympics and the sports involved, and the skills they may need". They will undergo training conducted by Beijing's universities. The program, under the leadership of a vice-mayor, will also involve other state organisations, including the city education authority and foreign affairs office.

The Communist Youth League, a powerful arm of the ruling Communist Party of China, will provide ideological input, making sure visitors who ask tricky questions beyond "Where are the nearest loos?" will receive the correct party line. Most of the volunteers chosen will be students.

There won't be any problems with workers gaining time off for the Games fortnight, says Xu, because "employers will be very proud that one of their staff has been selected, so fierce is the competition to be a volunteer". As part of the training, prospective volunteers will learn "how to behave in a civilised way".

Within Beijing, the key slogan is New Beijing, Great Olympics. Shanghai was rebuilt in the 1990s, and it has been Beijing's turn this decade with the Olympics used as a justification. But the Games-related construction has comprised just one-quarter of the re-creation of Beijing into a "world city" costing $190billion, including doubling today's four subway lines and extending them from 114km to 198km, then by 2012 to 561km, in a move that may prove the single biggest pollution beater.

The extraordinary, trapezoid new China Central Television HQ is costing far more than the main 91,000-seater $400 million Olympic stadium.

Beijingers explain their city now comprises three concentric circles, just as Shanghai does. In the centre is foreigners and leading cadres and capitalists. Outside them are Chinese managers and senior officials from other parts of China. In the outer circle, beyond the city's fifth ring road: the Beijingers.

Much of the ancient city that was declared the capital by Kublai Khan in 1271 has been bulldozed. The neighbourhoods of hutongs, narrow lanes surrounding walled courtyard homes, have been reduced to a few islands. In their place are shopping malls, vastly overbuilt in China, with just 10 per cent making a profit.

It has been reported that mayor Wang Qishan has toured old neighbourhoods, urging officials and demolition workers to "speed their essential task". This appears to involve extraordinary collaboration between officials responsible for planning and developers whose tough employees daub "chai", or demolish, on buildings they are targeting.

The Beijing media carries stories about residents being roughed up and worse. Recently a couple of gang members associated with a developer were convicted of murdering a woman of 62 who refused to leave her home.

In a planning system with no route for appeal, this has led to corruption on a scale to match the size of the new concrete structures. Vice-mayor Liu Zhihua was fired a year ago for corruption but only after he also slipped into "degenerate ways", or sexual laxity.

Hua Xinmin, whose family home has been destroyed, is a famous defender of old Beijing. "The main planning agency should not be a consortium of government and developers, but of government and homeowners," she says.

The China Daily held a survey in which only 29 per cent favoured demolitions. "Hutongs are the soul of Beijing, without them there is no more Beijing," a respondent said.

BOCOG's deputy director of media Sun Weide defends the development, saying "urban renewal has helped living standards" with the average living space per person rising from 8sq m in 1993 to 20sq m today.

Such is the scale of China's sustained growth that the economic impact of the Games is minor. Jonathan Anderson, chief Asia economist of wealth management firm UBS, says: "We simply don't think the Olympics are important at all for China," well below 1 per cent of economic growth, which last quarter surged to 11.9 per cent.

Investment bank J.P. Morgan agrees: "The data so far (mid June) indicates no obvious effect of the 2008 Games on the economy of China as a whole. Indeed, they do not even show a big impact on the economy of Beijing. "Hosting the Olympics is more a consequence of China's rising economic power than a contributor to faster growth."

Beijing will certainly feel the impact of the two million expected visitors from within China along with the half-million foreigners.

If they haven't already bought tickets for the opening or closing ceremonies, they're too late. They're oversubscribed. But plenty more are available, with 58 per cent of tickets priced at or below $17. For security reasons, the tickets may carry the photo of the purchaser.

There are seven million tickets overall, with 5 million already ordered, mostly online. The next stage of sales within China is from October to December. Other countries, including Australia, have their own agencies licensed by their Olympic committees to sell an allocated supply.

The Chinese Government wants all students to spend an hour every day participating in sports, and Sun says the Games will generate huge excitement in sport among the nation's youth, including his son, 15, who "spends too long playing computer games".

The biggest motivator will be victory for Chinese athletes benefiting from the home advantage and patriotic crowds. China has been in the top four on the medals tables at every Games since 1992, and in 2004 in Athens trailed only the US in the gold medal tally.

Performances are being boosted by recruiting international coaches, including Australian Tom Maher for women's basketball.

The rewards for gold will be substantial. China's biggest sports star, alongside basketball giant Yao Ming, is 2004 Olympic hurdling champion Liu Xiang. Liu, like his colleagues, is managed by the Chinese Athletic Association which retains about half his earnings. One of China's most ubiquitous advertisements shows Liu racing kangaroos and halting just short of a stunning cliff in Australia.

Sun stresses it's rare for a developing country such as China to host the Games, which have only been held twice before in Asia, in 1964 in Tokyo and in 1988 in Seoul.

In those cases, the Olympics were a watershed, a significant shift towards Japan and South Korea being accepted as Western-style democracies where human rights and the rule of law are substantially upheld.

There is pressure on China to pursue the route through a market economy to democracy and an open society that was long viewed as the inevitable path of development. Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the Olympics provide a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to bring human rights to the fore in China.

A special police force has been established for the Games, with the People's Liberation Army, the world's biggest, also involved. The focus is on the Government's domestic foes, including Tibetan and Xinjiang independence campaigners and enemy No.1, Falun Gong.

The Olympics will provide a platform for the ruling party to demonstrate its successes since Deng Xiaoping launched the era of economic reform 30 years ago.

But the threat to the made-in-China brand posed by the controversy over food safety, counterfeit products and false drugs is prompting the Government to beef up its international public relations.

The party's next five-yearly congress - treated in China even more seriously than the Olympics - takes place in October, when the next generation of leaders will be ushered in ready for a smooth transition when Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao step down in five years.

Global praise anticipated for China's hosting of the event will provide reinforcement for the party's strong conviction, regained after hesitancy around 1989, that future prosperity is best assured by the party continuing to rule much as it has done for 58 years.

At the end of last year, Chinese state TV ran a 12-part series The Rise of the Great Powers. The subtext was scarcely hidden: we're next.