Friday, February 02, 2007

Green and harmonious Olympics--not quite

After reading this article, I am appalled to see how far China, the great pretender, is willing to go to boost its image. And it's a very costly facelift at that! But things are not always what they seem. They can brag all they want about being so great, nevertheless a new report on organ harvesting of prisorners should serve as an eye opener to us all. However, China has it right on one count -that is- they should worry about human rights activitists in the leadup to the Olympics. Intervention from rights activists, trouble as the Communist officials would call it, could easily be avoided if they'd only stop brutalizing their own people. Another Olympic-size headache for China is the environment. Superficial measures won’t resolve the core of the problem. And saying things are allright don't make it so.

Freedom of the press is certainly not a done deal either. Journalism is the third most dangerous profession in China. Regardless of the new regulations to protect journos, a journalist was brutally murdered outside a mining company office January 11. What new laws? Even Hu Jintao felt he had to apologize for that one. Look here for Reporters Without Borders' annual report for 2007.

Send a letter to the IOC and let them know that China has broken its promise of improving their human rights record before the Games--and it's even worst than ever!

Sydney Morning Herald, Australia: Faster, higher and on target

Unlike Athens, Beijing is forging ahead with Olympic Games preparations. There's just the small matter of chronic pollution, writes Jacquelin Magnay.

Hard-hatted Henry Zhang stood atop the towering birds' nest that has come to signify the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and cast his eyes over the surrounding Olympic Green, not so much lush as huge brown mounds of construction dust. "I felt very proud and very scared at the same time," says Zhang, the deputy general manager of the national stadium, of that moment last year.

Zhang has overseen the construction of the Olympic stadium, now 70 per cent complete, which is really three tiers of seating that can stand alone without the cosmetic envelope of the huge steel that wraps around it like string.

"To be honest we have never had this experience of building such an external steel structure and it was a very big challenge for us, but since last September we feel very, very confident that we can finish it on schedule and with quality," Zhang says, noting with a hearty laugh that when the supporting pylons were removed nothing fell down.

Zhang's thoughts about his eye-popping 91,000-seat stadium that will convert to a football stadium after the Games mirrors the entire ambitious Beijing Olympic project. It is bold, it is out there and it is very risky.

China's authorities have chosen the August 2008 Games to exhibit the new China: a more open, vibrant, energetic, high-tech country that is breathtaking in its transformation. Authorities have moved villages, invested many billions of dollars and searched the highest peaks for inspiration.

The Olympic torch and flag, for instance, will be taken by climbers to the top of Mount Everest. And the pictures of this moment will be beamed live by Chinese television around the world.

The logistics of this exercise are mind-boggling - how to keep the torch alight in such a low-oxygen, high-altitude environment; how to carry satellite dishes and broadcast equipment to beam the moment; how to select a skilled Chinese climber for this privilege; and how to keep the team safe.

"We want to put the Olympic flag on top of the world. The training has already started," says Wang Wei, the executive vice-president of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG).

The funding of some of the Olympic venues has broken new ground and illustrated how Communist China has opened to the world. Authorities looked outside of the state's revenue and won private investment in the stadium. Three companies, Citic Group, the Beijing Urban Construction Group and the US Golden State pension fund, have funded the total cost (which has not been revealed) in return for a 42 per cent stake over the next 30 years.

Several hundred metres away the Australian-designed spectacular aquatic centre, "the water cube", features translucent walls and ceilings of "bubbles", and can change colour. The 1.02 billion yuan ($169 million) cost of this construction was totally funded by contributions from 80,000 expatriate Chinese who will have their names recorded on a wall nearby. "They had a very strong will to contribute," says the centre's executive deputy general manager, Zhao Zhixiong.

While there is tremendous enthusiasm and a seriousness of attitude, the Chinese political leaders and the Olympic organisers face enormous challenges to control aspects that can bring the Games undone, such as the Falun Gong, which is campaigning among supporters to disrupt the Olympics, human rights protesters or the acutely uncomfortable, choking air pollution.

Beijing organisers are worried China's image will suffer if the pictures beamed around the world show athletes whingeing about being unable to breathe or if the Great Wall of China is cocooned in a thick blanket of smog.

The high pollution levels are of such concern that many Australian training camps will not be held on the Chinese mainland and many teams will delay their entry into Beijing until the last possible moment.

The Beijing Municipal Authority has been open about the problem and since 1998 has spent 119.1 billion yuan to find a solution, closing coking factories, halving the production of the Capital Steelworks factory, and embarking on a widespread public transport system that by 2012 will mean any Beijing citizen will be just five minutes walk from a train station. All of the industrial burners have had to change to cleaner fuels and the city's 9000 construction sites have been covered to prevent dust storms.

Their efforts are paying off, with the number of clean air days (judged by whether the pollution has exceeded Beijing's five-point standard test) at 241 last year, up from 101 days nine years ago. But the number of worst pollution days also rose - to 20.

The vice-director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, Du Shaozhong, acknowledges the rapid urbanisation was an issue and says the next 12 months are critical.

"We try our best and we invest a lot of money [in] Beijing's air-pollution control, but the air and water quality still has a lot to improve," Du says, describing this year as "a crucial year for Beijing to realise an Olympic green environment and the Beijing municipality will try our best to increase the air and water quality".

Compounding the problem is the sale of nearly 1000 new cars a day to Beijing citizens, all of which require the highest quality emission standards. Sales of cars, mobile phones and real estate underpinned the country's eighth consecutive year of double-digit growth, figures released last week show.

By August next year, it is expected there will be 3.5 million cars in Beijing.

Wang says all factories can be temporarily shut during the Games if need be. And there will be a concerted push for people to leave their cars at home. Beijing residents are being educated via television, billboards and slogans about "Olympic etiquette".

"When not to give a big shout, when to keep quiet, to cheer both sides, to be nice hosts," says Wang.

Ticket prices were kept low (from 30 yuan to 1000 yuan for competitions; 200 to 5000 yuan for the ceremonies) to encourage local participation. Unlike the West, which uses sport to tackle obesity, the Chinese want to use the Olympics to help people relax. The Games will also be about exhibiting China's athletic prowess and the Chinese Olympic Committee dearly wants to knock off the United States from the top of the medal tally, especially in front of the 80 heads of state who have indicated they will be there.

But that triumph must come without any taint of drugs following the loss of face at the 1998 World Swimming Championships in Perth where several athletes were caught with the hormone-boosting EPO (erythropoietin). Late last year one of the provincial sports schools was raided and a large cache of performance-enhancing drugs seized, but for the first time, the authorities revealed that the raid took place.

The International Olympic Committee has stressed that China must be transparent and allow journalists to do their work without interference.

The Communist Party responded and has relaxed restrictions on journalists until after the Games so that they can report more freely and move about the provinces more easily. No longer will journalists have to seek permission from the state to interview an athlete. Wang says the organisers do not fear the human rights questions either, because human rights at the moment is "the best in the history of China" . He is confident that with less than 550 days until the opening ceremony Beijing and China will be ready for the world's inspection.

"Journalists will see the reality of China, they can ask about how happy they [the people] feel about now and the future and for the most part it will be positive [response]. Every country has its pros and cons and we want to do our best for the people to know more about China and the reality of China," he says.

"We want to showcase Beijing and showcase China and we understand the international community doesn't know Beijing or China as it really is and this is our opportunity for the world to focus on us. We understand the bar is high, our own expectations are high, but we want a distinct Olympic Games with Chinese features."

The writer travelled as a guest of BOCOG.


Budget for the Beijing Games organising committee: $US2 billion ($2.5 billion)

Ticket revenue: $US140 million

Product licensing 4000 items: $US50 million

IOC sponsors: $US1 billion

Volunteers: 220,000 registered for 70,000 positions


$US1 billion in public facilities,

transport and infrastructure around Olympic venues

$US1 billion to improve urban environment

$US1 billion on underground subway

$US133 million to improve air quality

$US38.5 million to modernise industry

Source: Beijing Finance Bureau, BOCOG OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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