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SPIEGEL ONLINE

08/07/2008 06:35 PM

China's Games

'The Olympics Have Destroyed Our Lives'

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The visionary and ambitious; the displaced and exploited. A new collection of photos shows the winners and losers of the Olympics boom in China. The book's author tried to capture the country's extraordinarily rapid -- and at times destructive -- transformation.

"One World, One Dream" is the slogan that was chosen for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many might criticize the phrase for being a bit banal. But to Chua Chin Hon, the long-time China correspondent and photographer, the slogan is "astonishingly naïve" when applied to a country rife with religious intolerance and a growing threat of terror. What's more, the slogan reveals nothing about the country's complex changes and frightening contradictions.

"What kind of world is that supposed to be?" asks award-winning conceptual artist Ai Weiwei on his blog. "No democracy, no civil rights, a lack of equality and fairness, only double-dealing and treachery," Ai adds.

Ai himself had a hand in the construction of Beijing's Olympic stadium through his collaboration with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. As he sees it, the "one dream" part has much more to do with "even more corrupt officials, even dirtier deals, a stream of lies and questionable prosperity."

Since it first won the bid to host the Olympics seven years ago, Beijing has been preparing virtually around the clock. In a Herculean effort, China's capital and six other event locations have been transformed into gleaming metropolises. Over $14 billion (€9 billion) have been spent on cleaning up air pollution in Beijing. The government has even gone so far as to promise that it will host a " green Olympic Games." They've moved or temporarily shut down entire factories, taken coal furnaces out of service and banned cars from the streets. And with some degree of success. But a thick cloud of smog still looms over this prettified Beijing.

Chua Chin Hon runs the office of Singapore's Straits Times. As a journalist, Chua has documented Beijing's dizzying transformation over the past two years. Chua's newly published book of photography is dominated by everyday photos of scaffolding, skyscrapers and workers in Mao jackets. Shabby apartment blocks stand side-by-side with amazing feats of architecture. Beneath towering high-tech stadiums built using the most environmentally friendly techniques available, horse-drawn wagons carry stones through clouds of dust.

'Built on Sweat and Tears'

"Modern China has been shaped by constant and often relentless transformation," Chua told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Chua has tried to compile a testament of sorts to this series of changes. Some of the upheavals have been inevitably destructive or unsettling "because they happened even faster than we could perceive them."

As Chua sees it, Beijing's glory has been built on both the sweat of hard work and the tears of loss. Two layers of society that almost never come into contact have played the leading roles in preparing for the Olympics. On one side, there are the athletes, who are both the shining symbols of a superior nation and the harried individuals who have dragged themselves through a life of rock-hard discipline and regimentation. On the other side stands an army of some 5 million migrant laborers, who have made Beijing's boom possible.

In his award-winning documentary "The Red Race", Chinese director Chao Gan denounces the questionable training techniques of Chinese Olympic coaches. It also shows how often incredibly young athletes are forced to bear up under military-like drills, psychological stress and immense public pressure.

The legions of Chinese migrant workers don't care much about such things. For starters, most of them have no interest in the Games, earning as they do a maximum of $280 (€180) per month. Furthermore, according to government officials, since 2003 at least six of them have paid for the city's construction with their lives, and the number of unreported cases is estimated to be several times higher.

Now, there have been reports that the government has instructed city officials to clean all the migrant workers out of the capital before Friday's opening ceremonies -- apparently an effort to present an image of the perfect city.

Banished from Their Own Homes

Beyond that, though, Chua is haunted by the systematic destruction of the so-called "hutongs," the narrow streets and alleys that make up Beijing's older neighborhoods. Almost 40 percent of what were once 3,600 hutongs have already fallen victim to modernization and the ever-present real estate speculators. Nearly 1 million inhabitants of the capital have been ousted and re-settled in miserable locations on the outskirts of the city after having been given only paltry legal recompense.

Even these relics of ancient times were forced to yield to the huge hotels, shopping centers and thoroughfares -- all for the Olympic Games. "The Olympics have dealt a blow to common citizens; they have destroyed our lives," a 63-year-old man whose family had lived in one of the destroyed neighborhoods for four generations told Chua. "That is what we feel, though we're not allowed to say it in public."

These stories inevitably raise the question of whether city officials care about tradition or history and who will preserve the collective memory. "This is the question that many Chinese are asking themselves," Chua says. "These days, I wonder if the Olympic Games have not played a role in nipping this whole debate in the bud."

Chua adds that naturally there are "many Chinese who are very proud of the fact that their country is putting on the Games." As Chua sees it, some of the credit for that should go to the state-run media which has consistently published only positive reports about the preparations. On the other hand, many writers, artists and intellectuals have spoken out against what has been happening, but their criticisms have generally fallen on the deaf ears of people who are "by now just indifferent to it all."

In recent days, though, the city's inhabitants have been angered by the heightened security arrangements. "Little by little, it's getting pretty annoying," one young Beijing resident said Tuesday while making his way to work along a street crowded with police. "At first, I thought having the Games would be cool," he adds. "But now I'm not so sure."

Some Control Is Good, More Control Is Better

With Friday's opening ceremony looming, public safety is the top priority. More than 34,000 soldiers have been deployed in and around Beijing, including units trained to respond to chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. In the area surrounding the Beijing National Stadium, where the ceremonies will be held, the military has even gone so far as to set up anti-aircraft sites to respond to a possible airborne attack.

Leaders in Beijing have even brought the weather under their control. More than 6,700 cannons and 4,100 rocket launchers have reportedly been set up to shoot silver iodine into the clouds so that the city can get a good rinse before the games.

Critics of the regime, intellectuals and human rights activists have always had their names on the state's black lists. Human rights groups have reported that, in the run-up to the games, many of these individuals have been systematically harassed, ousted or -- like cyber-dissident Hu Jia -- arrested.

The 25,000 journalists covering the games have had trouble accessing certain Web sites because they have been carefully blocked by the government. Smugglers, prostitutes, the psychologically ill and those with contagious illnesses weren't even allowed into the country, having been denied visas.

Indeed, the government's controlling tendencies have resulted in a number of oddities. The police have set up a number of controls throughout Beijing in an effort to turn beggars and petty criminals away from the city center. Restaurant and bar owners were told not to serve blacks and Mongols because they are all allegedly drug dealers or prostitutes. Thousands of cameras have been installed and members of "neighborhood committees" are encouraged to report suspicious persons.

The Beijing municipality has also issued a long list of rules to be followed by residents during the games: they may smoke, but spitting is not allowed. Should the situation call for it, they should stand in orderly lines. And under no circumstances should foreign visitors be offered a meal of dog meat. One brochure also advises against wearing white socks with black shoes, suggests avoiding overly colorful clothing and asks that citizens not go out on the street in their pyjamas. A handshake, the brochure says, should not last longer than three seconds.

The PR Blitz

Organizers had promised a "fascinating festival, a competition of strength, speed and intelligence." But then came the demonstrations in Tibet,the ensuing PR disaster of the Olympic flame relay, the earthquake in Sichuan, problems with Beijing's air pollution and, to top it all off, complaints from foreign journalists about Internet censoring.

Will that all be forgotten when the first sprinters burst out of the starting blocks and the first swimmers knife into the pool? How will these Olympics be remembered? "No matter what happens, there will be two clear legacies," Chua says. On the one hand, Beijing's public transportation system has clearly benefited, with massive investments having been made in road, subway and airport construction. And: "The impressive new stadiums have finally put Beijing back on the world's architectural map."

Beyond that, says Chua, "it will take some time before we know whether the Games made China more open to or more tolerant of other worldviews."

On the economic front, it is doubtful whether China will experience much of a boost from the Olympics. A study from the Centre for European Economic Research comes to the conclusion that the Olympic Games in Beijing will have little to no effect on China's economy. The construction sector certainly profited, concludes the study, which surveyed 300 analysts and investors. But there will likely not be any long-term effect.

Indeed, many analysts believe that climbing inflation and slowing growth will have a negative impact on China's economy. But Chua sees things differently: "Critics who think they now see signs of a collapse radically underestimate China."

With material from dpa and reuters

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