China's Games 'The Olympics Have Destroyed Our Lives'

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."


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