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Games run-up exposes the dark side of China

On track with plans, officials turn focus to several thorny issues.

August 08, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

XINYANG, CHINA — Zhang Huimin, 8, skips, walks and jogs along National Highway 107, an impish girl in an undersized red tracksuit. She has been going since 2 a.m. and it's close to noon, but she's keeping a steady pace, driven by a goal: to complete the 2,150-mile trip from her hometown in southern Hainan province to Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the political heart of China.

Her quest has caught the attention of a nation filled with pride at playing host to the 2008 Summer Olympics, which will open a year from today.

It also has brought scrutiny of a less-welcome sort, as her father, Zhang Jianmin, garners criticism for pushing her too hard at an age when her bones aren't fully hardened and most children are playing at home.

"How can he treat his daughter like that solely for his own money and fame?" says an anonymous posting on, a major Chinese Web portal, which found in an informal poll that 76% of respondents considered the challenge excessive.

As the one-year countdown begins to the 2008 Beijing Games, China is also discovering the dark side of the international limelight it bid for and craved. On 8/8/08, at a time chosen to maximize China's belief in lucky 8s, the opening ceremony, starting at 8:08 p.m., will erupt in a blaze of fireworks, stoking the nation's ambitions and solidifying its growing role on the international stage after a century of humiliation and weakness.

But China's big coming-out party is also shining unwanted Klieg lights on the dark side of China's booming economy and authoritative government, as the world focuses on the pollution, labor exploitation, food and product safety issues, human rights violations and its practice of cozying up to repressive oil-rich regimes.

By most conventional measures, Beijing will be ready for the Olympics. Its one-party state does mass mobilization superbly and has been in planning overdrive for years. Few expect the sort of last-minute scramble that marked the lead-up to the Athens Games in 2004.

All but one of the 37 venues are scheduled for completion by year's end, seven months ahead of time, with the $3.9-billion, 91,000-seat "bird's nest" National Stadium likely to be finished in March.

"The bird's nest is expensive, but in the long run it should put the city on the international map," said Shen Shizhao, a professor at Harbin University of Industry, an advisor for the building. "Without its opera house, Sydney wouldn't be so impressive."

In an era when cities compete to pull off economical, debt-free Olympics, Beijing spared little expense, scouring the globe for the best architects and most innovative designs. It will lay out nearly $40 billion on Olympics infrastructure, compared with the $15 billion spent in Athens, and another $25 billion on projects timed around the event.

The expected 1.5 million Chinese and foreign visitors will find six new subway lines, a 26-mile light-rail system, a third airport terminal and runway, and 9.5 square miles of property development.

China has long been adept at hardware, but this coming-out party is meant to showcase its softer side as well, including its long history, hospitality and civility. Unfortunately, manners and niceties were often condemned in the Cultural Revolution as a bourgeois affectation, creating a legacy that doesn't respond to a quick makeover.

"It's easy to build a skyscraper quickly, but a civilization isn't built in a day," said Qu Wenyong, dean of the sociology department at Heilongjiang University. "Our software problem can't be tackled in the short term."

Wary of losing face, Beijing has launched a series of mass campaigns to deter spitting, smoking, cursing, littering, smelly taxis and flies, among other social ills, and to encourage table manners and speaking English. It also designated the 11th of each month as "queuing day" to bring sharp-elbowed residents in line.

Also cautious about the ugly side of burgeoning nationalism, it has tried to drum good sportsmanship into residents, including volunteers roped into cheering for opposing sides. Chinese fans rampaged through the capital in August 2004 after the national soccer team lost to Japan and, a year later, turned a basketball game between China and Puerto Rico into a mass brawl.

Among its greatest challenges, however, is human rights, an area China pledged to improve as part of its bid to win the Games. International civic groups, including those concerned about labor rights, arbitrary detention, neighborhood destruction, press and religious freedom, and greater autonomy for Tibet and the far western province of Xinjiang, say China has not lived up to its commitments. Several groups say they plan to use the next year to pressure and embarrass Beijing.

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