The nagging doubts about China’s ability to manage responsibly are creeping in.
January in China means, of course, the start of the New Year but also crucially, as we are told in the newspapers and on TV repeatedly here, it’s only 18 months till 8/8/08 the auspicious opening day of the Beijing Olympics. And it’s only 41 months until the opening of the Shanghai EXPO on May 1 2010.
In amongst all the hype about the Olympics we haven’t heard too much about ethical issues yet. We’re hearing about everything else that could possibly be Olympics related – the government has mandated that newspapers must devote a certain amount of their space to Olympics stories, TV the same and the CCTV sports channel is now, as of January 1, the Olympics channel.
The money is flowing; some of it into corrupt officials pockets it seems given the flood of Olympics related graft busts. The Beijing 2008 budget is hovering around US$36 billion and is primarily being spent on infrastructure.
This is phenomenal - Sydney spent only around US$5 billion and Athens around US$8.5 billion. Beijing’s budget has already doubled since they were awarded the Games and the only way is up.
Way back in the day when the government was lobbying like crazy for the Games there was a lot of talk about 2008 being the first ‘Green Olympics’. There’s been a lot less talk about that since.
Despite some early critics of the Games being hosted by China – Amnesty and other human rights and pressure groups suggested it wasn’t the most ethical choice for the event – the nay-sayers have been quietened. Or perhaps they haven’t, to be honest it’s impossible to tell in the fetid pro-Olympics atmosphere here in China. Still, companies, brands and indeed countries need to think about the ethical aspects of 2008.
There is little chance of anyone boycotting 2008 – some western countries may have pulled out of the Moscow Olympics but trading relationships are too important to cause anyone to withdraw from Beijing on political grounds.
Though it is worth considering whether the Chinese government’s belief that 2008 is in effect their grand coming out party and a route to international acceptance that will make so much of the criticism of China disappear in the splendour of the closing ceremony is probably misguided.
Moscow had the same idea but few people watching the event changed their minds much about the old guys in the Kremlin and while millions, indeed billions, will watch the 2008 Games there’s no reason that enjoying the 100 metres and some swimming will make them feel warm and fuzzy towards the occupants of Zhongnanhai.
In private officials charged with running the Games do worry. They don’t worry about the facilities – those will be finished and pristine; they don’t worry about traffic or pollution – private cars will be ordered of the roads if necessary and the clouds bombed in advance to clear the air.
They don’t even worry about winning – the sports sausage factories dedicated to medals accumulation are working overtime ready to set loose an unprecedented posse of medal winners and world record breakers in 2008. Rather what they worry about is overreaction and this falls into a few key areas:
To avoid criticism China will have to sell tickets for events to anyone who wants them. It will be politically problematic and bad press to start denying entry visas to ticket holders. The fear is that organisations like Free Tibet and the Falun Gong will buy up large numbers of tickets and the final of the 100 metres will see the stands full of little old ladies protesting by doing tai chi live on camera. What will the police do?
Every Olympics, like every big event, has a host of innocuous protests – anti fur protestors who strip of and throw red paint about; animal rights protestors who put themselves in cages to draw attention to the plight of battery chickens – a streaker or two if we’re lucky. If this happens in Trafalgar Square during London 2012 it probably won’t make the papers; if this happens in Tiananmen Square during Beijing 2008 and the police react as they have to even small protests in the Square in the past a PR disaster will occur.
China has already declared that restrictions of journalists in China that normally apply will mostly be lifted during the Games. Many media outlets are already preparing to send hordes of hacks to Beijing in 2008 – some will write about sport, others will wander of and look for other stories while the authorities are looking elsewhere.
This second group worries officials – they will find it hard to start barring journalists and worry that for every column inch on the weightlifting there will be five times as many on corruption, poor healthcare, the shabby treatment of migrant workers and peasants etc. This is not the image Beijing is aiming for.
Without doubt Beijing 2008 is shaping up to be a massive event, perhaps without any equivalents. But as the hype of being made the host city and the initial rush to get the facilities in place recedes the nagging doubts are growing. We all know China can build the world’s biggest swimming pool but can they control several hundred thousand visitors and thousands of journalists? Expect some fireworks…and not just of the gunpowder type.