How will the Beijing Games be dubbed?

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Thursday, July 10, 2008

One Australian newspaper is labelling the Beijing Olympics "The Ghost Games".
Is this a kill-joy story, or the reality as the countdown to the Games begins (or carries on . . . )

I like the bit about the Hash House Harriers - imagine trying to explain what that means to Chinese police. Particularly when you are following a trail of white powder through the streets. "We are drinkers with a running problem. . . "

From The Australian

The Ghost Games

Rowan Callick | July 08, 2008

AS the giant Olympic clock in Tiananmen Square counts down to the start of the Games, Beijing is abuzz: not with what's going to happen in a month's time but with what's not happening.

The three top priorities of China's Communist Party, which has ruled the country for 59 years without any coherent challenge, are control, control, control.

There will be none of the live sites that existed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where locals and tourists congregated in open areas across the city to have an impromptu party and watch the Games on giant screens.

On Beijing's notoriously hot August nights when everyone prefers to sit outside, the city's rapidly growing open-air eating areas and rooftop bars have been instructed to close during the Olympics, apparently in case a fervid drinker displays a political banner.

The Government is likely to succeed in persuading most of the 15 million inhabitants of the capital to stay home to watch the Olympics on television, as happened at the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic when residents were instructed not to go out on to balconies to view the vast parade, which was for official eyes only.

Beijing has few public spaces where people tend to congregate except for parks, the Wangfujing shopping street and, of course, Tiananmen Square. But authorities are unlikely to organise any events in such locations to ensure groups do not find a way to celebrate in an unco-ordinated manner.

Events and locations that could produce a pooling of people and outbreaks of spontaneous enjoyment have been cancelled or ordered closed for the Olympics.

Authorities have asserted that all nightclubs and bars must close from 2am to 8am, a time when the night spots at the 2004 Athens Olympics were at their peak.

Cooking in basement kitchens must cease, as a potential fire hazard, causing further restaurants and cafes to shut.

During the soccer world cup, which generated enormous interest in China, Beijing's bars attracted huge crowds to watch the games on specially rented big screens. That will not be permitted during the Olympics.

Meanwhile, large numbers of foreigners have been banished from China, especially those who have been doing business or providing services on their own account, rather than being contracted by large corporations or governments. They have been unable to renew their visas, which typically do not extend to the full year provided to formal corporate or state representatives.

"A healthy city ecology needs those small fish, just as the ocean cannot thrive just on whales and sharks," one social commentator says.

Foreign business people and tourists have also been unable to secure visas. Multiple-entry visas are no longer issued. This has led to a series of long-planned conferences being axed, including China Access, managed from Australia, which is one of the most successful annual business workshops bringing potential investors to the country.

The world's biggest regular conference for anthropologists, which took 6000 bookings, was cancelled by government order.

At Shunyi, near Beijing airport, where the Olympic rowing will take place, two churches for expatriates have been told to close until after the Games. An orphanage has had to move its children elsewhere.

The Games will be a normal working period for Beijingers. No holidays have yet been announced, except for workers in polluting factories that will be closed for two months.

Transportation of all liquids appears to have been temporarily banned throughout the country, with freight forwarders told they cannot even carry wine by air.

For the two months of the Games (August 8-24) and the Paralympics that follow (September 6-17), chemicals will not be allowed to be transported within China, causing huge logistical issues for fertiliser companies that supply much of the rest of the world, including Australia.

Not even the postal service has escaped the purge. A new list of forbidden items has been added, especially for the Games. Electronic material may not be posted. A Beijinger wanting to send MP3 recordings by memory stick to boost the morale of a friend hit by the Sichuan earthquake was told it is now forbidden.

A group of expatriates, mainly business executives, who went on an evening run in Beijing with the Hash House Harriers following a trail of flour, were hauled in for questioning by police. The flour was tested and the group eventually released at 4am with a stern warning. The group's website now says that because of increased security measures in the lead-up to the Olympics, "we recommend that everyone ensure they are carrying adequate identification while hashing, such as photocopies of their passports, visas and residency permits". They usually run in shorts and T-shirts.

A guide for foreigners, published by the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, says people with Olympic tickets are not guaranteed visas. It warns foreign visitors against shouting insulting slogans or displaying them on banners, and says the display of religious, political or racial banners at venues is banned.

"Not all of China is currently open to foreigners, and if foreigners do not have permission they should not go into areas not opened." Foreigners must carry "relevant documents" at all times.

As happened in previous Olympic cities, there may be a net drop in tourists, both domestic and international. Zhang Huiguang, director of Beijing's tourism bureau, says that while half a million foreigners are still expected during the Games, the figure that has been used for several years, bookings at hotels with fewer than five stars are below 50 per cent, despite considerable investments in refurbishment for the Olympics.

A month ago five-star hotels expected to be 77 per cent full for the Games, chiefly because of the large numbers of long-planned VIP bookings. But that ratio dropped suddenly late last month as BOCOG returned rooms it had reserved and had been unable to fill.

Websites are now advertising heavily discounted rooms for the Games period. Previously, hotels had deterred would-be visitors by insisting they book for the entire 17-day Games period and pay outrageous premiums.

The sheer size of Beijing and of the Chinese economy means that the Games were never going to make much of a difference to the economy.

Lehman Brothers' chief China economist Sun Mingchun says the impact "will be very small; the Olympics can only add at most a half percentage point to growth".

The World Bank did not mention the Olympics in its latest 21-page quarterly update on China's economy, even though the Games occurs in the middle of the reporting period.

Shanghai-based Access Asia, an entertaining, well-informed but sardonic online newsletter with a marketing focus, says: "As a certain sobriety sets in over the Games, a growing number of analysts are now coming out and saying that being an Olympic sponsor this year is both a waste of money and not doing much for your precious 'brand equity', nor, it would appear, your share price in the long term."

The heavily polluted environment is one area where the Games may well outperform expectations. City officials are ordering half the city's 3.3 million cars off the roads for two months from July 20. But taxis, buses, security, diplomatic, organisers' and some senior level government vehicles are exempt. Those whose number plates start with an even number can drive only on even dates, and odd numbers on odd dates. In return, all car owners are exempt from paying three months' taxes and road maintenance fees.

Polluting factories reaching hundreds of kilometres beyond Beijing will be closed. Construction on the city's vast number of building sites, smothering Beijing with dust, will be halted.

Christine Loh, Hong Kong's leading environmental campaigner and chief executive of the city's top think tank, Civic Exchange, last month urged Hong Kong's and Guangzhou's authorities to learn from Beijing's experience in improving air quality.

Plastic bags are no longer free, with all stores charging extra, and Beijing is already claiming victory in its long-running campaign of "civilisation improvement" to outlaw spitting and littering, encourage queuing and speaking English, and to ban smoking.

But the issue that most sours Beijingers as the Olympics approach is the demolition of the organic ancient city and its re-creation as a series of forbidding monoliths.

Less than a quarter of the money spent on the city's development in the past four years has gone on the new Olympic buildings, which all appear ready. A billion dollars has gone on one building alone, the Government's China Central TV tower, designed by Dutch celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas. Nicknamed the trousers, the building strides across Chaoyang, the business hub.

Beijingers want visitors to come and marvel at their buildings. They want the Games to be a success. They want their team to win.

It will be an occasion when virtually all Chinese people across the world anticipate taking pride in seeing the Games showcase the country's technological modernity, organisational capacity and economic energy. But they are well aware that the last thing their rulers want is "fever pitch" behaviour. Most will be politely applauding from afar.

But it is possible, just possible, that phlegmatic Beijingers, Chinese visitors from elsewhere in the country and from the great diaspora, and foreigners who remain or have obtained visas will conspire to break down the barriers created by the control-obsessed Communist Party and have a ball.

Those who live here live in that hope.
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