A man is standing on a small pedestal in front of the entrance to the Olympic Tower. He is wearing a grayish-green uniform with a white belt and black gloves, and he holds two flags in his hands, one red and one green, which he waves like a circus performer. As comic as he may look, the man's expression is as stern as that of a soldier in the People's Liberation Army. A green flag means go, and a red flag means stop. More often than not, the man is waving the red flag. It turns out that entering the headquarters of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee isn't as easy as it would seem.
Behind the flag-waving guard, a 19-story glass tower stretches into the sky at Beijing's Fourth Ring road. The Chinese flag and the Olympic Committee's flag hang in front of the building, enshrouded in the city's notorious smog. Attached to the front of the building and covering several floors is the emblem of the games, a running figure on a red background. The lobby is big enough to double as a small arena, with metal detectors at the entrance, an enormous reception desk and, next to it, a panel as big as a movie screen bearing the logos of the Beijing Olympics' 48 partners and sponsors, companies like McDonald's, China Mobile, General Electric, Bank of China, VW and Air China. The panel represents a total of €1.5 billion ($2.21 billion) in sponsorship funds. Everything here is gigantic, everything glitters -- and everything must be under control.
192 More Days
The Olympic Tower is the heart and brain of these games. It houses the offices of scores of officials deployed by the government sports committees, the city administration, the state council, the party, the news agencies and the universities. They expect close to 17,000 athletes and officials from 205 countries. It's their job to organize 302 competitions in 28 different sports. They will be dealing with more than 20,000 foreign journalists accustomed to receiving answers to their questions. They put together the schedules for the 100,000 volunteers who will be guiding 500,000 tourists through a foreign city. They have spent $38 billion (€25.8 billion), built 20 new competition venues and dug new subway tunnels throughout the city. The Olympic Tower is where everything comes together. And, if the Chinese have their way, everything will be perfect.
The only problem is that the world and the Chinese Communist Party have different notions about what perfect means.
For the Chinese, perfect means dry skies during Beijing's typically rainy August. It means the absence of smog, taxi drivers who can speak English, pedestrians not spitting on the sidewalk and hostesses smiling nonstop. The police are under orders to break up demonstrations, but they should attract as little attention as possible in the process. The Chinese want to hear spectators cheering during the games -- but not too loudly, as it might just evoke memories of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. And China's athletes must rake in as many gold medals as possible, but not so many that it becomes embarrassing for others.
The country that has been ruled by the Communist Party for almost 60 years is supposed to present itself to the world as being an open and modern place with a proud and liberal-minded society. That's the biggest challenge of all.
The opening ceremony will happen 192 days after this Tuesday. After that, it will be Organizing Committee member Deng Yaping's job to make sure that the athletes -- more than 10,000 strong -- are housed perfectly, eat perfectly, live perfectly. And that's the easy part of her job.
Deng, the world's top female table tennis player in the 1990s, is today the deputy director of the Olympic Village as well as somewhat of an ambassador for the games. She was the Chinese delegation's spokeswoman in 2001 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2008 Olympics to China. When China unveiled its logo in 2003, she stood next to Hollywood star Jackie Chan on the stage. She is as popular in China as football legend David Beckham is in Britain. She won four gold medals in the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics, and she has been world champion nine times. Five years ago, she was voted China's Female Athlete of the 20th Century. A member of the IOC since 1997, Deng studied history in Nottingham in England, and then went on to study economics at Cambridge University. She is currently completing a doctoral thesis. Her topic: Olympic branding. Cosmopolitan and elegant, Deng may be all of 1.50 meters (4'11") tall, but she feels completely up to the job.
Deng receives us in an 11th-floor conference room separated by a glass wall from a large room filled with cubicles, coffee machines and computers. Not much glitters here, where staffers get down to the nitty-gritty of running the huge event. Deng is wearing red corduroys, dark red pumps and a Burberry scarf around her neck.
She was born in 1973 in Henan, an interior province, at a time when China was one of the world's poorest countries, isolated, sealed off from the outside world and destroyed by Mao's Cultural Revolution. She began playing table tennis when she was five, just as reformer Deng Xiaoping was opening up the country to capitalism. She won her first provincial championship at the age of nine, but the government trainers thought she was too small to pursue the sport. She persevered, training for eight hours a day. When she played, she looked like a jumping ping-pong ball with arms and legs. "I hit the ball faster and ran more; I worked hard," she says. "I knew that, if I was successful, I would have a good life in front of me."
The year she won the world championship for the first time, 1989, was also the year of the Chinese military's violent crackdown on student demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. When she retired from the sport in 1999, China was well on its way to becoming a major power. She is a product of the Communist Party, to which she owes much of her good fortune: her wealth, her ability to study abroad and her fame. Deng can do everything her parents were not allowed to do. She can work where she wants, travel wherever she wishes and own whatever she can afford. Deng has no reason to question any aspect of her life.
When the Foreign Ministry holds an open house to celebrate the upcoming Olympic Games, Deng stands at the table with her minister and plays doubles against the ambassadors of Great Britain and Greece. She is also a member of the Political Consultative Conference, an organization consisting of representatives of show parties as well as prominent scientists and athletes. On New Year's Day, President Hu Jintao delivered a speech to representatives of the Consultative Conference. He spoke, as he has done for years, about the harmonious society he believes the country needs, about the great reforms China has experienced in the last 30 years and about the struggle to overcome mistakes. He also insisted that the country must remain steadfastly on course.
"Part of my work in the Consultative Conference," says Deng, "consists of coming up with suggestions for improvements. For instance, we managed to change the regulations so that passengers would no longer have to pay airport fees separately. Instead, the fees were simply added to the price of tickets. My goodness, there used to be such pandemonium in front of ticket counters."
Deng believes in the things she says -- and in the things she doesn't say. She is not someone you would discuss Tibet or human rights with. She says that when foreign reporters talk to simple people who have no political awareness, things can easily be exaggerated. Journalists, Deng insists, see China through "colored glasses."
She is proud of the changes in her country, and she hopes that the Olympic Games will open up China even more. "For the first time," she says, "the various ministries and government agencies are forced to communicate with one another."
This doesn't exactly secure the freedom of jailed human rights activists or higher wages for migrant workers, but in a country of competing bureaucracies, better communication is already a step in the right direction. The government, the military and the administrative agencies make their own rules and their own policies. Now they are even required to talk to non-governmental organizations.
The control of the Beijing Organizing Committee is firmly in the hands of these bureaucrats. Liu Qi is the president of the committee, which also includes a female vice-president, three managing presidents, eight deputy managing presidents and four managing members of the committee -- all of them secretive people with obscure biographies. The men wear their hair neatly parted on the side and the women all have perms. It's a rather dreary bunch, this bunch of deputies.
Liu's job is to write the slogans. They sound as if they were concocted by an amateur Chinese lyricist who's been reading Western motivational books on the sly. Last year, the committee launched a campaign to teach Beijing's citizens how to stand in line, keep streets and squares clean, and not to use obscenities when addressing foreign athletes during the Olympics. The campaign's slogan was: "Welcome the Games, emphasize good manners, promote new attitudes -- I participate, I become involved, I am happy."
The world of Beijing's preparations for the games is planned and monitored in boards and teams, panels and permanent committees. No one is told when they meet and what is discussed at their meetings. At the beginning of the year, Liu issued the guidelines for the coming months at a general meeting of the Organizing Committee. One of the main objectives, according to Liu's rules, is to improve international communication and foster positive public opinion in China and the rest of the world. This too is an enormous challenge. A government machinery and its officials, who have ruled the country for decades like members of some secret society, are suddenly being expected to project transparency.
The Heart of Chinese Darkness
To help the Chinese achieve these goals, the Organizing Committee also includes a staff of about 30 foreigners. One of them is Jeff Ruffolo. His title, according to his business card, is "Senior Expert." He is a PR adviser in the Olympic Media Center and the only American on the Organizing Committee. A former CNN sports reporter who covered Olympic Games, he was recently a PR consultant for a Chinese airline. He was interviewed 12 times before he was hired, and now he works in the heart of Chinese darkness.
Ruffolo is from Los Angeles, just shy of 50 and slightly overweight. Part of his job is to write press releases for the foreign media, that is, to translate the language of communist announcements into news-quality, English-language statements containing clear messages. He has to train his staff in the media center on how to interact with journalists, including the mastery of interviewing techniques, background conversations and the art of addressing questions instead of dismissing them. Part of his job is to take away their fear of saying the wrong thing. Ruffolo is preparing his Chinese staff for something that is almost completely foreign to them -- the full weight of global public opinion, which, unlike the Chinese public, cannot be controlled.
Ruffolo is the communications conduit between China and the world. Sometimes he uses the word "we" when referring to the games and the Organizing Committee. And sometimes he seems on the verge of despair, a reflection of the thin line between loyalty and incredulity.
For the past few weeks, Ruffolo has set up a meeting at 9:30 every Tuesday morning between leading members of the Organizing Committee and journalists. He calls the event "Getting to Know." On this particular morning, a deputy director of the Media Operations Department is the featured guest. Ninety journalists have appeared for the meeting, which lasts two hours, but the deputy director never says a word. Instead, he spends two hours smiling quietly, and only once whispers something to his staff. That's it.
Two of his colleagues, former journalists with the official Xinhua news agency, are noticeably more talkative. One reported on the European Union in Brussels for many years and the other was a correspondent in the Arab world, where he even visited al-Qaida training camps. The two men are friendly and are clearly making an effort, answering the journalists' questions about working conditions and visas. Everything feels the way it should.
But then a journalist asks a question about the government's plans to establish a database on the more than 20,000 journalists expected to converge on Beijing and the rest of the country. The Chinese press authorities had argued that the file is necessary to combat the misuse of journalistic activity.
The two Chinese officials seem genuinely surprised. "We don't know anything about that," they say. "We don't want to threaten anyone. Our goal is to help the journalists. We are open and transparent. Of course, we want to improve China's image, but we have no way of ensuring that they portray only China's good sides. They will report on what they see, on what the reality is. Of course, the negative stories in the past weren't truly objective, either. Our goal is to help them do a better job."
When Beijing submitted its bid for the games in 2001, the then deputy mayor promised the IOC that the Chinese would not only promote the development of the city but also of Chinese society -- democracy and human rights included. These assurances were part of the deal that got Beijing the Olympics in the first place. Late last year, civil rights activist Hu Jia was arrested for "subverting state authority." He has been denied access to a lawyer because the case allegedly involves state secrets. Hu spoke out on behalf of AIDS patients and dissidents. He was under house arrest for six months, and prior to his arrest he wrote that he had been disappointed in his hope that the games would promote openness and democracy in China. The Communist Party, according to Hu, is merely using the games to apply the stamp of legitimacy to its dominance.
There will be many more cases like his over the next 192 days. Protests will become louder, and pressures on the government will grow. Forty-one activists are apparently already in prison. The limits are clear, and it is doubtful they will ever be eliminated. "We organize the games," says Ruffolo, "and we do not comment on political matters. It isn't appropriate to talk about things like that."
Instead, Ruffolo prefers to describe his work in Beijing since last March as "baby steps."
He is there when the Chinese national training center, where almost all elite athletes who will compete in the games are assembled and granted access to journalists for the first time in months. This too is what Ruffolo would call a baby step, although it would seem a matter of course that journalists should be given access to the center.
'Solidarity, Democracy, Self-Discipline'
There is probably no other place where so many world champions and Olympic medalists train. It includes giant, newly renovated training halls for each discipline. The athletes -- all government employees -- live in nearby housing and, like factory workers, are taken to and from the training center in government buses. The 2008 Chinese Olympic team, the biggest ever, will include 570 athletes. Journalists are permitted to observe them -- as if they were animals in a zoo -- but interviews are forbidden. Athletes are not even permitted to give out their telephone numbers.
The walls are plastered with Chinese flags and slogans. For the gymnasts, it's "Solidarity, Democracy, Self-discipline," while the table-tennis players are encouraged to "Keep the fatherland in your hearts and your eye on the world, train hard and win fame for the country." The flags of the United States and Russia hang next to the Chinese flag in the weightlifters' training center, arranged like athletes during an Olympic awards ceremony, with the victorious flag -- China's -- at the top.
Sports are not an entertainment industry or a money-making endeavor in China, where it is tightly controlled by the state and the party. Using the Soviet Union as their role model, the Chinese blanketed the country with a network of athletic schools in both cities and rural areas. In China, athletes belong to the state.
The slogan "Training is the Basis, Innovation the Soul, Success the Goal" is prominently displayed in the building in which divers train. Guo Jingjing, who won two gold medals in Athens four years ago, is doing handstands in the building's gymnastics hall. Next to hurdles runner Liu Xiang and basketball player Yao Ming, Guo is the country's most popular athlete. A beautiful woman, she appeared in ads for McDonald's and Coca-Cola after the Athens Olympics. She wears Dior perfume and used to lead the life of a superstar. When party officials criticized her lifestyle, she apologized publicly on television and promised to devote all of her energy to promoting China's glory. A few months ago, when the Chinese athletes were still permitted to give interviews, she said: "I do everything the Sports Ministry tells me to do."
Guo will be one of the major stars at the upcoming games, just as Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman was in Sydney eight years ago. She plans to end her career after that. Perhaps she will become an actress or a model. She will be free, as free as Deng Yaping, the former table-tennis player. She will choose her profession freely, own whatever she can afford and talk to whomever she wishes.
Prospects for Team China
Before the tour of the training center, the Sports Ministry holds a press conference. Gray officials sit on the podium drinking green tea against a backdrop of red satin and yellow Chinese characters. They include Deputy Minister Cui Dalin and a handful of senior ministry officials, each responsible for an individual discipline. The deputy minister describes the games as an opportunity to disseminate China's history and culture.
The official in charge of the gymnasts dozes off for a brief moment. The games, says Cui, are an opportunity to promote friendship among the peoples of the earth. The gymnastics official gets up to make a phone call. Naturally, Cui continues, the games are also an affirmation of reform policies, of economic development and of social stability in the country. The gymnastics official cleans his fingernails.
Then Cui turns to the outlook for "Team China" at the games. The Americans are still ahead of the Chinese, he says, especially in track & field and swimming, disciplines that offer the most medals. Russia, he says, is also stronger. Despite successes in boxing and rowing, says Cui, the Chinese athletes are not yet consistent when it comes to performance -- except in table tennis, badminton, weightlifting, diving and shooting, all disciplines that the Chinese dominate. It sounds as if he were discussing the results of a harvest that has fallen well short of expectations.
"Do you think China can win more gold medals than the United States?" a journalist asks.
"Unrealistic," says Cui.
'The Most Misunderstood Nation on Earth'
With seven months to go before the games begin, China is taking pains not to project the image of an invincible giant, of an incredible performance machine fueled by previously unknown super-athletes, possibly pumped full of unknown drugs. In fact, the Chinese anti-doping agency is considered one of the world's most effective. Nothing would be more embarrassing to Beijing than a doping case in Team China.
The games will be over in 216 days. Will Zhang Qiang, a meteorologist with the Weather Modification Office, have succeeded in her plan to induce rain several days before the games -- hoping that this will reduce the likelihood of rain during the events -- by seeding clouds outside the city with silver iodide? Will prohibitions on driving and factory closings have cleared up the skies over Beijing? And will dissidents have been released to experience the rest of the world descending upon China?
There are some optimists. One of them is Ren Hai, 57, a sociologist at the Beijing Sport University. He is anything but a dissident. He believes in his country and in the party, but he has also seen the world. He studied in Ontario in the 1980s. As the son of a family of academics he was sent at age 18 during the Cultural Revolution to Gansu Province, where he worked as a blacksmith for three years until he was allowed to return home. Like other Chinese, he had to survive on meager rations of food, including 500 grams (1.1 pounds) of meat a month. A professor since 1994, Ren frequently travels abroad and has close ties with Cologne's German Sport University. He says that he would never have believed how much his country has changed during the course of his life. He also says that China is the most misunderstood nation on earth.
Ren's English sounds Chinese and his tea tastes like warm water. A party member for the past 20 years, he says: "From the outside, the Communist Party may still look the way it used to, but on the inside it changed long ago."
The games will open up China, says Ren. In addition to the concrete, stadiums and skyscrapers, they will leave behind a softer legacy. "China will be forced to cooperate internationally," says Ren, "and it is in the process of learning how to deal with it."
What exactly is communism?
"For me," he says, "communism means that I am honest with my students. I don't like propaganda."
A Nest for Democracy?
The central government is losing control, while capitalism does as it pleases. The world is coming to China, and when it does, everyone with access to a television set will be able to observe what actually happens in this country. Every dictatorship is terrified of the moment when it finally loses control.
The white corridors of the institute are empty. It's dark outside, the city is blanketed in smog, and a small white statue of Mao glows softly at the end of the street. A female voice blares from loudspeakers suspended from the streetlights. The woman sounds as if she were rattling off the latest party slogans.
But it's only the campus radio station broadcasting its nightly program, and the voice is that of a female student reading an ad for a career consulting business. "Have you ever considered starting your own company?" she asks.
The road back to the center leads past the National Stadium, also known as the "Bird's Nest," designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. It's the most beautiful new sporting arena since the Colosseum was built in Rome. The Bird's Nest will become the symbol of these games, and as a symbol, one can interpret it in many ways. Some would call it a prison of steel, while others might see it as a breeding ground for democracy.
No one knows what will happen to the stadium after the games. There are no sporting events in China that could fill the arena on a regular basis. Someone has even proposed demolishing it after the games.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan