Implications of the greatest Games ever

8 August, 2008 may well be the most significant date in modern Chinese history since the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October, 1949. Seven years of preparation will culminate in what has been hoped to be the greatest Olympic Games ever. As always with such large-scale events, a range of repercussions, both positive and negative, have already started to emerge. The implications go beyond the individual, city limits, and even national borders, as the host city (and the whole country for that matter) shoots into the international limelight. The Olympic Games have already had and will continue to have enormous economic, social and political implications on China.

2008 was to be a great year for China because of the Olympics starting in August. The Chinese have injected US$40 billion-worth of investment into infrastructure and Olympic structures, several of which have become internationally acclaimed masterpieces, including the new National Stadium, the “Bird’s Nest”. Incalculable numbers of new roads, parks, lakes, housing, and public buildings have been constructed around Beijing and other Olympic cities. The capital’s water and air quality has improved greatly and it is stepping up its food and product safety. The Games will boost the Chinese economy by 0.3% of the annual gross domestic product and will have created over 2 million new jobs.

The people of Beijing, “Beijingers”, have also been targeted during the preparation for the Games. Public campaigns to “civilize” its residents have taken place in the hope for more queuing and less spitting. Taxi drivers have been provided with English-language training, while senior citizens have recruited their own language teachers in the hope of being selected as one of the 100,000 volunteers for the Olympics and Paralympics. The sense of national pride of the host country’s 1.3 billion people, or at least a large majority of them, has been also greatly boosted.

Today, with less than 130 days until the Games, the anticipation in the city is almost tangible. The Olympic torch has been lit and is currently travelling through 134 cities around the globe, unfortunately not stopping in Finland this time. The legendary five-coloured Olympic rings have been decorating the street corners of Beijing for years, albeit at times without respecting intellectual property rights. The radio, television, and the Internet have for long been taken over by endless Olympic-themed programmes and advertisements. Residents and tourists alike are haggling over toys of the five Olympic mascots whose names spell out “Beijing welcomes you” or “BeiJing HuanYing Ni.”

However, the country is now enjoying a very different kind of media shower than it had expected. The bourses in Shanghai and Shenzhen have been dipping sharply causing investors to become nervous. Snow and ice storms during the Chinese New Year holiday in February halted most of the southern and central provinces for over a month, resulting in 129 deaths and direct economic loss totalling US$21 billion. Inflationary pressures, mainly driven by sky-rocketing food prices, are now looming on the horizon.

Although the Olympics are supposed to be about sports, not politics, there will always be political interests at play, even against the host country’s will. While the organisers of the Games concentrate on hosting the best Olympics ever, they at times do so, unfortunately, at a cost to its own people. Forced evictions, restricted access to information, and freedom of press (for both national and foreign reporters) are few of the issues that come to mind. In addition, Steven Spielberg, the American film director, recently resigned from his post as the Olympic Games’ artistic advisor over China’s Darfur policy. In March, protestors around the world began calling for governments to boycott the Games due to the recent events in Tibet. And most recently, the protestors have asked Olympic sponsors to re-consider their involvement in the torch relay.

During these last few months leading up to August, we will see a lot more media coverage on China, hopefully both encouraging and critical. The lasting impact of the Olympics for Beijing (and China) will be immense on all levels. Hosting the Games has greatly boosted national pride and the country’s image globally, and has helped to create new jobs and contribute to the economy. At the same, China has been listening and learning from the international criticism it has received. Its environmental protection efforts are taking effect, so are the Government’s new food and product safety policies. The protests in Tibet sparked the Chinese to launch a global PR campaign, first blaming the Dalai Lama “clique” for the uprising and later criticising Western media for reporting lies. If something good resulted from the events in Tibet, it was the relaxation of the controls on the Internet. The “Netizens” of China can now access the BBC’s news services (in English), and even Wikipedia, online. Nevertheless, we have to wait and see if this is a short-term fix to keep the International Olympic Committee at bay or signals a genuine move towards allowing for more debate within China. The Olympics are a sporting event, however, due to its immense scale, it is impossible to distance the Games from politics. It is indeed this undeniable connection that can truly drive change within the host country.

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will be a great event, and most Chinese people would agree. The implications of the Games will be felt throughout the country and China’s global presence will be heightened. Not only will the economy and society as a whole benefit from the preparations for the Olympics, but the Government will also gain invaluable insights into handling relations with the outside world. There will always remain groups of people protesting against China on some account, however, this is the case with the majority of the world’s most powerful countries. You will always have your friends and your enemies. The Olympics will have done more good than bad, no doubt, but make no mistake, I am fully aware that there is a lot of room for improvement on a host of issues. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that the Games will be a catalyst for genuine change (economic, social as well as political) and that through pursuing sporting excellence China will grow into a responsible and respected global player.