Taking centre stage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 November, 2010, 12:00am

Now it's Guangzhou's turn to shine. When the Asian Games torch is lit tonight at a new stadium built on Haixinsha Island in the Pearl River, the bustling southern city will be under the spotlight as the host of the country's largest sports event since the Beijing Olympics.

'I can say responsibly, we are ready,' Mayor Wan Qingliang said. 'We will have the best organisation and management, the best venues and facilities, the best city environment, the best service and the most welcoming atmosphere for our guests.'

By the time the Games close on November 27, more than 10,000 athletes and thousands more visitors to the Guangdong provincial capital will have found an ambitious metropolis that has been freshly scrubbed and spruced up for the event. Roads have been repaved, new subway lines built, roofs repainted and lush flower beds installed by pavements.

The event's organising committee revealed the city spent 122.6 billion yuan (HK$142.1 billion) on preparations for the 16th Asian Games - roughly five times what South Africa spent on the soccer World Cup in June and July.

Official figures put the 2012 London Olympics budget at about GBP9 billion (HK$110 billion) and the 2008 Beijing Olympics' budget was 310 billion yuan, including infrastructure.

Of Guangzhou's 122.6 billion yuan, 7.3 billion was spent on the actual operation of the Games and Para Asian Games and 6.3 billion on building venues and renovating 58 existing facilities.

The rest was spent on an urban facelift and infrastructure upgrades, such as 54.7 billion yuan to expand the subway system to five lines, 18.5 billion to build more roads and bridges, treat air pollution and sewage and reduce traffic jams, and 19 billion to dress up apartment buildings along main streets.

Some analysts say the astronomical sum spent on the Games will provide a firm foundation for Guangzhou's economic development in the next decade, with the city also gaining in other ways - including more impetus for the development of a thriving civil society.

Ding Li , a regional economist at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, said the Asian Games were a golden opportunity for the city. 'It's not an exaggeration to say Guangzhou has experienced earth-shattering changes - whether we are talking about the improvement of basic infrastructure, public transport and administration,' he said.

Guangzhou previously had many shortcomings as a provincial capital, Ding said, but the Games will change its destiny.'With the Asian Games, Guangzhou will attract more capital from international investors,' he said. 'Although the city has spent a lot of money on the Games, we can grab this golden opportunity to spearhead the strategic development of the city.

'From a macro perspective, the costs of the Asian Games are justified if we look at the huge changes and foundation for future development it has laid out.'

Guangzhou has pulled out all the stops to ensure everything goes smoothly. In a move reminiscent of rules for the Beijing Olympics, half the private cars in the city of 10 million have been ordered off roads every day to improve traffic and air quality.

But in some areas, the authorities seem to have miscalculated. This week the city had to abandon an ambitious plan to provide free public transport for a month after the rapid increase in passengers overwhelmed the subway system.

Critics question spending that equalled one-seventh of the city's fiscal revenue last year. And apart from the huge investment announced by the government, there have been many hidden costs.

The Guangzhou city government is dishing out freebies such as one million free Games tickets and 150,000 people will be invited on one-day tours of the city. Disabled and low-income earners are also getting a 500 yuan subsidy and everyone will be able to tap into free Wi-fi to watch live broadcasts of events online.

The public have also grumbled that preparations for the sports spectacular have led to daily inconveniences. Scaffolding for beautification projects has attracted thieves and disrupted daily life since the middle of last year. They are also concerned by a rise in the number of cases of illness related to air pollution, with doctors saying construction dust was to blame. The incidence of respiratory diseases in March was 30 per cent higher than in spring last year, according to media reports.

But for China, hosting the Games is yet another opportunity to showcase the country's rising global influence, following the successes of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the World Expo that wrapped up in Shanghai last month.

Mainland culture critic Zhu Dake said the obsession with organising large-scale events was mainly designed to elevate the China brand name - telling the world that 'China is a rising power'. But he said organising a large-scale sports event was not enough to change a city.

'Beijing's Olympic Games is a good example,' he said. 'If Guangdong is really trying to become a culturally strong province, it needs to do more in protecting free speech and pushing for civil progress such as freedom of information, media and culture.'

Dr Peng Peng, a researcher at the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, said Guangzhou had a slightly different experience than Beijing and Shanghai when it came to organising large-scale events.

'Guangzhou enjoys a different status ... [its] No 3 status in China has been challenged by Tianjin and Chongqing . The city is organising a grand-scale event to ensure that status.'