The real cost of playing host to the Asian Games

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am

Later this week audiences around the world, or at least in Asia, are expected to be treated to another spectacular opening ceremony of a major event in China. The fireworks and dazzling lights this time will illuminate Guangzhou, a city that has been at the forefront of China's economic miracle.

Hard on the heels of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the beginning of the two-week long Asian Games in Guangzhou is another reminder that not only does China plan to emerge as a major global force this millennium, but it also intends to make a dramatic entry. But this extravagance naturally invites greater scrutiny on the effects of rapid development. Guangzhou residents in particular have not been convinced that all the investment, estimated to have exceeded 100 billion yuan (HK$116 billion), will genuinely deliver any long-term benefit for the local community.

No doubt, just as with the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai expo, the Asian Games will attract much international attention and prestige. Also, all the investment poured into the preparation and construction for the Games will have provided jobs for workers, and business opportunities for educated professionals. The influx of athletes and tourists throughout November should also provide invaluable cultural exchanges as the local service economy interacts with people from all over Asia. The city's infrastructure has also developed, spurred on by pressing deadlines to be ready for the opening of the Games. But even events as lauded as the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai expo raise questions about whether short-term international attention was acquired at the price of long-term benefits to the local residents. Guangzhou residents are now asking whether the cost of hosting the Games will be worth it. Internet discussion boards are littered with comments about this 'money-burning Asian Games project' and asking 'Can we think how ordinary people can benefit from this 'face' project?'

Many residents do not feel they are the targeted beneficiaries. The impressive new subway line connects the city to the major Games venues, even though other densely populated areas are in need of improved transport networks. The obsession with presenting the city as a modern metropolis with skyscrapers has required the destruction of many two-storey houses in Guangdong's signature Lingnan architectural style. So great was the resentment from one sector of the city - aggrieved at the suggestion that the two main television channels should switch their language of broadcast to Putonghua during the Games - that several thousands took to the streets in protest, showing their support for Cantonese heritage in open defiance. The call for residents to keep their lights on during the opening ceremony in order to spotlight the whole city has been met with counter-suggestions of a blackout.

However, rather than consider these acts of defiance as being 'unpatriotic' or a nuisance, it is hoped that the authorities will recognise that these are, in fact, characteristics of an increasingly modern and sophisticated society. Any one-party state can put on an impressive show at all costs. What has been most impressive with the preparations for the Guangzhou Games has been the attitude of its residents and their recognition that the future of their city lies not in the construction of skyscrapers and the burning of fireworks, but in sustainable development that values history and tradition, while embracing outside influences and diversity.