To some, holding the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will right wrongs; to others, it is just wrong
BEIJING – Red digits on a countdown clock blink out the days
until the International Olympic Committee chooses which country
will host the 2008 Summer Games.
An enormous scroll unfurled from China’s Great Wall recently
proclaimed “Success to Beijing!” and “We will win!”
At bid committee headquarters, architect Steven Gao showed
off his model of a remade Beijing, from Tiananmen Square and the
Forbidden City, where emperors sipped tea, to sparkling modern
The 2008 Olympics, Gao said, will be the “continuation of
traditional China culture.”
Many agree with him that China is a likely bet to host the
Games. Commercial sponsors – primarily U.S. corporations – want
access to 1.3 billion Chinese. Olympic movement leaders want to
take the Games to regions such as China, Africa and South America
that haven’t hosted the Olympics. China lost the 2000 Games to
Australia by two votes.
But China remains relatively isolated despite two decades of
economic opening. And just as campaigning in Beijing culminates
with nationalistic public displays, China faces increasing
conflict with the United States over human rights and military
postures that threaten to turn confrontational.
The conflict gives grist for a renewed debate over whether
China deserves to host the Olympics. China’s communist leaders
bristle. They figured China already has done plenty to win global
New freedoms are allowed here and spreading, said Wang Wei,
secretary general of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee.
“China people, now we can comment on government affairs.
That’s a change that has taken place,” Wang said.
And the 2008 Olympics would be a “catalyst” for more change,
Wang said, “for human rights as well.” Changes “will not be as
fast,” he said, if China’s bid fails.
Beijing’s success also could help U.S. interests in hosting
the 2012 Olympics, Wang added.
“It will be very hard” for the U.S. to host the 2012 Games if
Toronto hosts the Olympics in ’08, he said. “It’s very important
not to let Toronto have it this time.”
Yet, opposition from some Americans is adamant. That is
especially true after last month’s detention of a U.S. spy plane
crew for 11 days and the continuing clash over returning the plane.
Hosting the Olympics “brings a certain status to a city and a
country,” Gov. Bill Owens said. “I don’t think, given China’s
human rights record, that it would be any more appropriate to have
had the Olympics in Cape Town,” South Africa, under apartheid.
Cleaning up Beijing
On July 13, IOC members will meet in Moscow to select a host
for the 2008 Games. Competing with Beijing are Istanbul, Turkey;
Osaka, Japan; Paris; and Toronto. U.S influence is limited, with
four U.S. members on the 126-person committee. Ballots IOC members
cast in a multiround elimination process are secret. Members from
candidate countries can’t vote.
IOC members this month are to receive technical reports from
committee experts who visited and evaluated candidate cities. The
reports are supposed to focus on site preparations – not politics.
And on that score, China has begun an all-out push including
flashy proposals for beach volleyball and other events to be
conducted at Tiananmen Square, site of China’s massacre of
pro-democracy supporters in 1989.
Consider the $12.2 billion Olympic environmental clean-up
Beijing launched after teaming with a Denver-area company.
Some of the world’s deadliest pollution hangs over Beijing.
Congested masses here hack and wheeze as they move through
the corrosive, gray murk. Breathing 24 hours of the pollution from
factories, coal-fired power plants and thickening traffic is the
equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, according to
world health authorities. Beijing is one of several Chinese cities
where, Chinese authorities reported this past decade, air
pollution caused millions of deaths.
China’s government accepted that Beijing’s pollution could
choke the throats – and memories – of visiting IOC technical
experts. So, in 1998, China turned to CH2M Hill.
A 12,000-employee engineering firm based in Greenwood
Village, CH2M Hill has been contracted to clean up messes from New
York’s toxic Love Canal to the Rocky Flats radioactive nuclear
weapons waste west of Denver.
In February, when the IOC experts arrived in Beijing for
inspections, CH2M Hill’s managing director for China, Sarah Liao,
presented the “Action Plan for a Green Olympics”:
Plant millions of fast-growing trees throughout Beijing (pop.
12 million) covering 100 square kilometers – an area the size of
Denver International Airport. The goal: Improve air quality and
shield Beijing from Gobi Desert dust that mixes with smog.
Reduce urban industrial pollution by moving factories away
Double sewage treatment capacity so that most wastewater is
Convert 90 percent of Beijing buses and 70 percent of taxis
to clean-burning natural gas.
Urge every citizen to recycle at least half their garbage.
IOC experts recorded this in detail. Americans and Chinese
involved contend this sort of U.S.-China cooperation could prove
far more effective than confrontation for both countries – and the
world – in the future.
“I think Beijing deserves the Olympics,” said CH2M Hill chief
executive Ralph Peterson, who was in Beijing on business last
month during the spy plane standoff.
Chinese leaders “have made tremendous progress” over the past
two decades, Peterson said. Letting Beijing host the Olympics now
“is a matter of encouraging China’s active participation in the
IOC vice president Dick Pound, one of five contenders to
succeed outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch in July,
applauded China’s environmental clean-up efforts during a Denver
“I don’t know whether it could win it for them,” Pound said,
“but it would certainly take out of play a major concern that
might otherwise be a question mark.”
Pound won’t vote because he’s Canadian, and Toronto is a
contender for the 2008 Games. But he’s familiar with IOC thinking.
The spy plane incident, Pound said, “is not going to play much of
a role at all. I don’t see that as even being on the radar screen
come July 13.”
But rancorous U.S.-China relations raged anew after President
Bush’s recent assertion that the United States will back Taiwan,
which China regards as a rebellious province, militarily if
necessary. Last week, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld downgraded
U.S. military relations with China, and China warned President
Bush’s proposed missile defense system will set off an arms race
that could threaten world peace. Bush then lashed out at China for
not allowing greater religious freedom, denouncing this as a sign
In the U.S. Congress, lawmakers want to use the Olympics as a
political wedge to punish China. Some 60 House members and more in
the Senate have sponsored bipartisan resolutions that the 2008
Olympics should not be conducted in Beijing unless China releases
all political prisoners and improves civil liberties.
Support is strong, said U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., on
the House International Relations Committee.
“This doesn’t mean we end trade with China,” Tancredo said,
casting the resolution he co-sponsored as political “cover” for
those leery of cutting economic ties. “This is a statement that
needs to be made. China and the world need to see that there is
strong concern in the United States about human rights in China
and the aggressive nature of the regime.”
Whether any of this will make any difference is unclear.
European leaders recently declined to join the United States in
sponsoring a United Nations censure of China. Choosing an Olympics
site is up to IOC members – not Congress.
But the highest-ranking U.S. member – IOC vice president
Anita DeFrantz – said, “I always take very seriously the opinions
expressed by Congress.” She discussed human rights in China
recently with Amnesty International Director William Schulz.
DeFrantz is another candidate to succeed Samaranch, the
outgoing IOC president. As an Olympic rower in 1980, she went to
court to oppose the U.S. government boycott of the Moscow Olympics
to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet DeFrantz said her vote in July will depend mostly on what
athletes want, including any concerns athletes may voice regarding
China’s human rights. “I am listening to many arguments,” DeFrantz
The U.S. State Department’s latest assessment describes
worsening human rights in China, including crackdowns on religion
and the Falun Gong spiritual movement, a blend of meditation and
stretching that has attracted millions of Chinese followers. The
report also documents repression of minority groups, such as
Tibetans, and suppression of political dissent.
Some human rights groups are refocusing their campaigns
against China to challenge Beijing’s Olympics bid.
In Denver recently, Students for a Free Tibet, with 600
chapters nationwide, launched a campaign under the banner “No
Olympics for China until Tibet is Free.” College and high school
students sent hundreds of letters to IOC leaders: “Say No to
Beijing 2008.” And Tibetan immigrants across the United States are
mailing white silk “khata” prayer scarves as reminders that China
punishes Tibetans who challenge Chinese rule, said campaign leader
Tenzing Jigme, 32, a Tibetan student at the University of Colorado
“America has so many economic ties to China, people don’t
want to mess around,” Jigme said. “But the Olympics is one area
where you can maybe send a warning.”
“We want to vote’
In Beijing, news that anybody opposes Beijing’s bid brought
scowls from residents who overwhelmingly support hosting the
Olympics. Even some democracy advocates contend the Games would
promote positive change.
“There’s room to improve the system,” said Liu Dageng, 33, at
a restaurant with his wife, who was at Tiananmen Square shortly
before China’s 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.
“We want to vote, of course.”
But denying the Olympics to try to force change misconstrues
the Games “as a kind of gift,” Liu said. That “hurts the
Olympics,” he said. “Keep it simple. This is against the Olympic
IOC officials have conducted the Games in politically
controversial places before – the Soviet Union in 1980, South
Korea in ’88 when Korea technically was at war and the government
clashed regularly with labor demonstrators, and Spain in ’92 when
sometimes-violent Basque separatists were active. Some Olympics
leaders say the Games can boost human rights in host countries.
The blotch on that argument is Berlin, in 1936, where the
Olympics gave Hitler a platform shortly before he led the
Holocaust killing of 6 million European Jews.
Now in Beijing, residents eager to impress the world are
trying to help China’s Olympics campaign. They can’t do much about
their government’s approach to human rights and military buildup
with missiles aimed at Taiwan – which many support. But growing
numbers participate in the “Action Plan for a Green Olympics.”
A new Olympics-driven activism is emerging in some areas,
with restaurant operators considering whether to ban smoking.
University students recently debated forest-friendly alternatives
to China’s reliance on wood for hundreds of millions of chopsticks.
In the Chen Shou Yuan neighborhood southwest of Tiananmen
Square, residents planted trees, grass and flowers for an Olympics
Park amid their apartment towers.
Friends played pingpong in the park one recent evening, and
factory janitor Song Yue Ze, 49, laughed about the U.S.-China spy
plane standoff, pounding his fists together. Then he played tour
guide, pointing out how pleasant Beijing neighborhoods can be. “I
want your vote,” Song said.
And Liu Hung Ngor, apartment manager, earnestly taped up a
handwritten sign at the base of a stairwell. The sign urged
residents to go to the apartment office and pick up a new gas
nozzle, free, to attach to their stoves and limit pollution.
“It will be much cleaner,” Liu said. “We want Beijing to be
able to host the Olympics. And by hosting the Olympics, we can
tell the world what we are like. We are proud of our heritage.”