Shenzhen takes the gold medal for overspending

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 June, 2011, 12:00am

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Shenzhen's swimming pools have been shut as the sweltering city prepares for the 2011 Summer Universiade in August.

Children aren't allowed to fly kites in parks because they're banned as part of the authorities' anti-terrorism efforts.

People who forget to carry their identity cards can be barred from Metro stations and more than 80,000 'high-risk' migrants deemed a threat to the city's public security have been kicked out by police. Residents living close to the stadium have been asked to leave their homes for five hours during the opening ceremony but to switch on the lights before they leave.

Welcome to welcoming the world, Shenzhen style.

Besides the inconvenience of the extra security measures, many Shenzhen taxpayers are also upset by the authorities' extravagance in spending eight billion yuan (HK$9.6 billion) on the world university games, 11 times what Serbia spent on the Belgrade games two years ago. The Shenzhen budget includes 4.1 billion yuan for a 60,000-seat Universiade Centre in Longgang district - 500 million yuan more than Beijing spent on the 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics - 12 indoor arenas and a huge athletes' village.

If the universiade is all about prohibitions and spending, many people are asking, then what's the point of hosting it?

Independent political commentators close to city officials say Shenzhen's original decision to bid for the games was prompted by the desire to scupper a bid by the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung.

Shenzhen was given the political task by Beijing in 2006, but only asked to do enough to eliminate Kaohsiung, they said, adding that Beijing wanted to keep Kaohsiung from getting the games without having to waste money on them itself.

However, Shenzhen won the right to host the universiade in 2007 and grabbed the opportunity to upgrade its infrastructure at a time when such work was strictly controlled by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). Without the universiade, it would have been impossible for Shenzhen to get simultaneous NDRC approval for five new Metro lines and extension lines plus a cluster of highways.

By the late 2000s, Shenzhen had lost most of its advantages as one of China's first five special economic zones amid fierce competition from other mainland cities and its infrastructure was lagging behind that of major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Until 2008, Shenzhen had only two Metro lines with 18 stations. Just 150km away, Guangzhou already had four Metro lines with 60 stations.

There were also only a few highways linking the city centre with districts on its outskirts, such as Baoan and Longgang, which were not included in the special economic zone until July last year. They were shabby manufacturing hubs with substandard hospitals, schools and parks.

Thanks to the Universiade, Shenzhen is set to open five Metro lines or extension lines by August, with 131 stations and 179km of Metro line linking the city centre, airport and outlying districts. Commuters who used to spend two hours to reach the city centre will find their travel times halved.

Deputy mayor Zhang Siping has been quoted by mainland newspapers as saying that although Shenzhen started to build its Metro system eight years after Guangzhou, 15 years after Shanghai and 30 years after Beijing, it would surpass them all within five years, with another 350km of Metro line under construction. Shenzhen is expected to have 226 metro stations and 530km of track by 2016.

Infrastructure in outlying areas, and especially Longgang, has been upgraded in the past four years, with new highways, the Universiade Centre, a 13.4 sq km athletes' village and huge shopping malls. Housing prices in the district have increased from several thousand yuan a square metre to 13,000 to 20,000 yuan.

More than 200 million yuan has also been spent on giving buildings across the city a facelift, replacing the iron railings that prevented reckless pedestrians from crossing roads but made the city look like a huge prison, and renovating 25 main roads and the toll gates on 11 highways.

However, the fact that disgraced former Shenzhen mayor Xu Zongheng , who represented Shenzhen when it won the right to host the universiade, was linked to games-related corruption now makes them something of an embarrassment to the city.

Xu was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve by the Zhengzhou Intermediate People's Court in Henan last month for taking 33.18 million yuan in bribes between 2001 and 2009. Much of the corruption was linked to Longgang district officials and construction companies.

Infrastructure aside, the actual hosting of the games seems somewhat meaningless and lacking in taste. There's little evidence that the universiade, a biennial multi-sports event organised by the International University Sports Federation, will do anything to lift Shenzhen's international profile.

Two years ago, just 300 reporters requested credentials for the Belgrade games - compared with the 21,600 who covered the Beijing Olympics - and it has barely rated a mention in most international media outlets.

Following Xu's sentencing, the completion of the games infrastructure, and the fact that it no longer needs to overstate the importance of the games to get the NDRC on side, Shenzhen is now looking to save money and scale down things back as the games loom.

Rather than squandering money on purchasing new equipment, Shenzhen received four million yuan worth of items used in last year's Asian Games from the Guangzhou government in May, including televisions, tables and electrical appliances.

Games organisers have also asked people to donate 11 million used plastic bottles in order to construct a stage for the opening ceremony that will require less building materials.

In February, the torch relay, scheduled to involve 50 mainland universities and 3,000 torchbearers, was cancelled and changed to much smaller event involving just Peking and Shenzhen universities, with an online torch relay.

And to avoid having to purchase expensive, high-quality sand for the beach volleyball competition, the authorities decided to use free sand from Shenzhen's Dameisha beach after cleaning it to games' standards.

Perhaps it's fitting that commercial realities are finally starting to bear down on what is in reality a purely business and political affair. These games were never about the pursuing the spirit of sports.