Fri, Aug 01, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Wary China readies for the patriot Games

With Beijing's streets awash with pride and excitement, China's communist rulers are trying hard to keep a lid on rising nationalism and a firm grip on potential 'troublemakers,' real and imaginary

By Jonathan Watts  /  THE GUARDIAN , ZHENGZHOU, CHINA

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

In the concrete and glass shopping center in the heart of Zhengzhou, thousands of spectators, many wearing red and white “I love China” T-shirts and waving national flags, roar in approval as they gaze up at images of the Olympic torch on a giant TV screen.

The air is thick with pollution, heat and humidity. The security is so tight people are not allowed within a kilometer of the real flame. But among the crowd there is unabashed joy and pride that the Olympic symbol is passing through the capital of Henan, the most populous province in China.

“It’s wonderful, terrific. Everyone is so enthusiastic. I love my country, I love China,” gushes Du Juan, a 30-year-old housewife. “Foreigners don’t understand us. They think we are pitiful. But I think most Chinese people are good.”

With less than two weeks until the opening ceremony, the tide of nationalist fervor is rising to fever pitch as the torch enters the final stages of its epic and controversial journey to Beijing.

Given the highlighted unrest in Tibet, the protests in Europe and the Sichuan earthquake that brought a route diversion, the Olympic flame has come to represent one of the most tumultuous years in modern Chinese history. Originally intended to highlight the organizers’ “one world, one dream” message of international harmony, its progress now brings to mind the question of whether the Olympics will bring China closer to the rest of the world or just help exacerbate the differences.

In Henan, the enthusiastic crowds could not be further from the angry street protests generated as the torch reached London, Paris, San Francisco and Seoul. Here, the only worry is of patriotic ardor getting out of hand. At one point, the chanting and mostly young crowd spills through the police ranks and stops the traffic. There are scuffles before order is restored.

SOME OLYMPIC-SIZED FIGURES

Cost of the Games

US$40 billion, including new subway lines, an airport terminal, a light railway, roads and sporting venues. The Olympic stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, cost US$500 million, much of which went on the 41,875 tonnes of steel included in the unusual lattice design.

Relocation

An estimated 1.5 million people have been moved for the Olympics and for Games-related projects, Center for Housing Rights and Evictions data shows. The government says only 6,000 residents have been relocated.

Visitors

The Beijing municipal tourism bureau said on July 11 that the occupancy rate in five-star hotels was 77 percent and that of four-star hotels just 44 percent. The travel agency Ctrip said hotels had cut their room rates by up to a fifth. Based on past Olympics, the organizers had predicted 500,000 foreign and 1.1 million local tourists, generating 116 billion yuan (US$16 billion) of business. But visas have been hard to come by for visitors.

Security

A 100,000-strong security force of armed police, commandos and other troops is stationed around the city. The authorities have installed 300,000 surveillance cameras and sited anti-aircraft missiles next to the Bird’s Nest. ID checks have been stepped up. People who give police detailed evidence of a “major security threat” to the Beijing Olympics could receive a reward of between 10,000 and 500,000 yuan (five times the usual maximum amount).

General preparations

The organizers have recruited more than 400,000 volunteers. About 40 million pots of flowers are brightening up the city’s streets. More than a million cars have been taken off the roads and 200 factories closed to ease air pollution.


“People are just too excited,” an officer said.

Fear of the mob runs deep in China, particularly in Henan, which has a population of 98 million — bigger than that of any European country — and a reputation in other provinces for being untrustworthy.

But anxiety over size and trust is expressed in other nations about China — with its 1.3 billion people and an increasingly nationalist one-party state — with the Olympics bringing such fears to a head. By one recent estimate, China’s economy is on course to overtake the US within 20 years. A report this month by Jane’s Defence Weekly showed military spending had more than doubled in the past five years. That sense of rising strength could well be amplified in the Olympics, where many Chinese expect to come top of the gold medal table for the first time.

But, having overcome unrest, overseas criticism and natural calamity this year, many Chinese are feeling more proud of their country than ever. In this year’s Pew Global Attitudes Survey, China appeared the most positive of 24 countries, with 96 percent in the poll saying they expected the Olympics to be a success.

There is a gulf in perception, however. In the survey, 77 percent believed foreigners had a positive view of China. A Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll last week showed that 54 percent of Americans saw China as a foe and a Financial Times survey this year showed Europeans believing China had surpassed the US as the greatest threat to global stability.

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