Hu Jintao

Wrapped in the flag

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2008, 12:00am

The 100-day countdown

As the 100-day countdown begins for the Beijing Olympics, no event better illustrates the country's deeply ingrained tradition of keeping face than its approach to this summer's Games.

The nation's obsession with the event has escalated far beyond the realm of sport, with Beijing's determination to see the event succeed reflected in the appointment of President Hu Jintao's protege, vice-president Xi Jinping, to oversee the staging of the Games.

In the capital, Olympic fever is rising as last-minute preparations are under way for a party that organisers see as marking the country's arrival on the international stage. Amid the fanfare, efforts are also under way to ensure that the world does not see anything that reflects negatively on China.

Beijing's efforts to display China as a modern state have been marred by a series of protests overseas and on the mainland against its human rights record. The riots in Tibet on March 14 became the opening act, a prelude to the much-anticipated Olympic torch relay, ironically dubbed the 'Journey of Harmony'.

The 19-leg, 137,000km relay has faced obstacles from the moment the Olympic flame was lit in Greece, with protesters criticising Beijing on issues ranging from press freedom to Tibetans' rights.

The protests escalated in London, Paris and San Francisco, with torch-bearers jostled by anti-Beijing protesters. In Paris, the relay was interrupted at least four times and the flame extinguished.

Amid the international media coverage, CNN commentator Jack Cafferty on April 9 said Chinese were 'the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last 50 years'.

The protests and Cafferty's remarks fanned nationalistic fervour among Chinese at home and abroad, partly supported by a state propaganda campaign. As tensions have mounted, the past few weeks have seen an outpouring of anger against the west and its media.

Later, Cafferty said he had only been talking about Chinese leaders.

Thousands of Chinese staged demonstrations abroad and at home, including rallies outside Carrefour supermarket outlets on the mainland. The French supermarket giant was singled out because of President Nicolas Sarkozy's threat to boycott the Games' opening ceremony if Beijing did not open talks with the Dalai Lama, whom it has accused of being behind the riots in Tibet.

Last week Beijing appeared to move to ease criticism over Tibet by agreeing to repoen talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys.

In a commentary in the latest issue of the Communist Party mouthpiece Outlook weekly, Chinese authorities summarised the attacks as part of the west's intention of 'demonising China'.

The article said China's rise in the 21st century had brought varying interpretations of the accompanying threat to the established world order. Criticisms and fears ranged from the dangers of a strengthening yuan to poisonous food exports and growing military spending.

'Human rights is a good weapon to use as ... developed countries [are] ahead in development and there exists a gap with many developing countries. Using this label puts them in an advantageous position [in which they] won't get hurt easily,' it said.

The ferocity of the attacks by foreign critics has caught Beijing off guard and put pressure on Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Lenovo. Coca-Cola cancelled plans to sponsor a torch relay float in Japan, citing security fears. Observers say sponsors are nervous about a possible public relations risk. But on Chinese soil, it will be a different story. Coca-Cola last month introduced an Olympic jingle featuring sports stars Liu Xiang, Guo Jingjing and Yao Ming, and top names in Chinese entertainment.

Although undisclosed, each level of sponsorship for the Games comes with its own price tag. At the pinnacle is the prized global partner status, with a minimum estimated price tag of US$60 million to US$80 million. The appeal of the Olympics is also reflected in the number of smaller mainland companies that have willingly paid tens of millions of yuan to be suppliers.

Chen Jian, executive president of the Beijing Olympics Economic Research Association, says the Games offer investment opportunities and business potential rather than direct economic returns. Beijing city has pumped 300 billion yuan (HK$333.99 billion) into infrastructure investment, but less than half has gone into building Games venues.

'The boost to Beijing's economy is not even 1 percentage point - and Beijing accounts for 3.65 per cent of the nation's GDP,' said Mr Chen. 'Psychologically, there are expectations, but the actual realisation is less.'

Mr Chen said Beijing's economy had become more service-sector orientated, with financial services now accounting for 12.5 per cent of gross domestic product. In the past year, polluting factories have been ordered to permanently relocate away from the city.

Pollution in the capital is a key issue, with Beijing coming under intense international scrutiny since it won the right to host the Games. The original Olympic bid included a promise to improve the environment, a pledge that the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Bocog) said had been met.

'As a developing country, our infrastructural facilities are weak, and therefore, throughout our economic development, the problems that arise are comparatively more,' said Yu Xiaoxuan, the director of environmental activities at Bocog. 'When we were bidding to host the Olympics [in 2001], the gap was relatively bigger between the requirements and our actual situation.'

Mr Yu said that if the Olympics were well implemented they would help the city resolve its environmental problems. 'In other developed cities, they don't have many problems ... the waste to be treated and other environmental hurdles to overcome [aren't] the same as in Beijing,' he said. Mr Yu said he was aware of the negative publicity the city's environmental problems had attracted. That reality was brought home earlier this year when Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie announced he would not run the marathon in Beijing because of the poor air quality. The Games were further diminished by warnings from sports experts and professionals that pollution posed serious health risks to all athletes.

But the Olympics will have a positive influence on Chinese society, according to Shi Anbin, an associate professor in Tsinghua University's department of media and culture studies, who said they would accelerate the country's process of globalisation and improve communication between China and the west.

Professor Shi said many Chinese viewed the central government as the key organiser of national events, but the Games had given rise to a volunteer system, boosted understanding of the role of NGOs and raised people's civil awareness.

Professor Shi said the downside was that 'western economic and political elites had [used the Games] to press China to change for their own ends'. He said: 'This type of negotiation will spark nationalism in China ... and when manipulated by negative forces will disrupt social stability.'

He said Beijing had not been fully psychologically prepared for the protests that had erupted in recent weeks, but he described the government's response as rational and persuasive, with many media editorials calling for calm. He said its 'more tolerant' approach was intended to ensure the Games would play out well.