Beijing Olympics — After the Torch Burns Out (Part II)
What will be the long-term effects of the Beijing Olympics for the city’s residents?
- When all the athletes and journalists go home, China will be left with no distractions from its persistent social, environmental and economic woes.
- Narrow-minded preparations for the games have meant policy and spending sacrifices elsewhere.
- Campaigns against spitting, queue-jumping, littering, swearing and smoking have made Beijing slightly less rough around the edges.
- While Beijing is doing a good job impressing the world with its ultra-modern infrastructure development, the promise of long-term benefit seems increasingly swept under the rug.
In 2001, when China won the bid to hold the games, Beijing’s leadership declared not only that China’s Olympic infrastructure and preparedness would be “second to none,” it also promised that investments made for the games would “permanently improve the quality of life” of Beijing residents, and of the Chinese as a whole.
And for the past seven years, policies and plans touching nearly every aspect of China’s social and economic landscape have aggressively and single-mindedly attacked these Olympic targets.
But while Beijing is doing a good job impressing the world with its ultra-modern infrastructure development, the latter promise of long-term benefit seems increasingly swept under the rug.
In an article on the official Olympic website, the organizers claim a wide range of improvements to citizen’s lives between 2001-2006 “as a result of Olympic preparations.”
According to the article, these improvements include higher investment in housing, measurably cleaner air, and a “more comfortable lifestyle.” More families own cars and cell phones, says the article, and more households have computers and fixed telephones than did before the Olympic preparations.
Anticipating peak energy demand during the August games, the city has also increased the city’s energy supply by 33%. The surrounding countryside has benefited too, says the article, as area of land per person for the countryside surrounding Beijing has also increased, with each person having 8.1 more square meters than in 2001.
But is this frenzy of urbanization really delivering the benefits of long-term improved quality of life as the Olympic planners claim? People like my landlord, Dapeng, and other Beijing residents complain about the sacrifices made in the name of the Olympics. But it is also true that Beijing is getting a face-lift.
New subway lines, for example, as well as a recent decrease in ticket prices, provide direct benefits to millions of commuters each day. Stricter standards on industry and vehicle emissions, as well as higher spending on public transportation, have also translated into tangible improvements to Beijing’s environment.
And campaigns against spitting, queue-jumping, littering, swearing and smoking have made the capital slightly less rough around the edges.
But in celebrating these improvements, we must keep in mind that they come with a heavy social price tag.
For one, the hyper-modern and technically challenging Olympic venues and airport are criticized not only for being useless to the average Chinese, but also for destroying Beijing’s historical cultural heritage in the name of a cultureless modern China.
More importantly, perhaps, narrow-minded preparations for the games have meant policy and spending sacrifices elsewhere. In the first three quarters of 2007, for example, spending on Olympic infrastructure accounted for over 30% of total social spending for the city of Beijing.
From another angle, in a country where poverty is measured at $91 per year, the $59.5 billion spent on the Olympic infrastructure could have provided all of the country’s 23 million officially impoverished individuals with nearly $2,600 each.
That kind of handout would have more than doubled the incomes of the nation’s poorest for 30 years. The $500 million spent on the Bird’s Nest alone could have provided $22, or three months of average earnings, for every person living under the poverty line.
With such high stakes, even as the countdown to the games picks up speed, we must be careful not to focus solely on the question of what will happen in August.
For come September when all of the athletes and journalists go home, China will be left with its fancy new buildings and its 1.4 billion people, and no distractions from its persistent social, environmental and economic woes.
Will Beijing’s Olympic legacy be truly transformative for modern China, or only skin-deep, like Dapeng’s enthusiasm for the Bird’s Nest?
Will foreign investment come in the volumes high enough to recuperate the $58 billion price tag of the games and give common people access to the new hyper-modern international air service hub?
Will the benefits remain with the government, as Dapeng anticipates, or will they trickle down to the millions of impoverished households who still struggle for food and clothing in the country?
Will Beijing’s skies remain blue and its people spit-free, or will business go back to usual? It seems to me that Beijing’s real priorities — and indeed to the real face of modern China — will play out after the show is over and the spotlight has gone away.
Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a two-part series. Read Part I here.