Games run-up exposes the dark side of China

Times Staff Writer

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.

“We welcome even more constructive criticism on faults and problems,” Jiang Xiaoyu, vice president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, said at a news conference Monday. “But we absolutely oppose the politicization of the Olympics, as this does not accord with the Olympic spirit.”

In a taste of the public-relations drubbing China faces if it doesn’t handle this challenge carefully, police Monday roughed up reporters attending a news conference on media freedom.

“The best strategy for the panda is to endure the poking and let them see you’re confident,” said David Wolf, head of Wolf Group Asia, a strategic public relations firm. “If you start getting prickly and come off as defensive, you provide more fodder for attack.”

Another tough issue is the environment. Once again, some say, China has set itself up for trouble by promising too much.

“When you try and make something perfect, you create all sorts of expectation problems,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor at City University of Hong Kong. “China largely brings this on itself.”

Even as the world’s most populous nation promises to spend $12 billion on projects related to a “Green Olympics,” including rings of trees, tougher emission standards and new parks, Beijing is adding 1,000 cars a day and remains among the world’s most polluted cities.

This will be heavy on the minds of top athletes in quest of medals and world records given that they tend to inhale 10 to 20 times as much air per breath as their inactive counterparts.

Once again, China has a plan and a reasonably good chance of substantially reducing air pollution, at least for the two-week period of the Olympics. In recent years, it has moved steel and chemical factories out of Beijing and forced others to close or add scrubbers and other environmental equipment.

Authorities have phased out 30,000 old taxis and pulled nearly 4,000 old diesel buses from the road. And reports suggest they will shut down nearby industry and sharply restrict the number of cars allowed to drive in the weeks before the Games, accompanied if necessary by rocket-propelled, cloud-seeding technology to damp the smog.

The question is what happens before, and after, the Games.

“Just look outside today at what we have to breathe on a daily basis,” said Yang Ailun, an air quality specialist at Greenpeace China, referring to a gray-brown haze that has blocked the sun for several days. “They’ll probably meet their targets for the Olympics, but it only makes people ask why we can’t have that every day.”

The Games are also placing more focus on those left behind and not in a position to share the glitz, glamour and prestige of China’s economic miracle.

“The slogan of the Games is ‘One World, One Dream,’ ” said Robin Munro, research director with the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong. “There are a great many people who don’t have an admission ticket to that dream and are stuck outside the stadium.”

Cui Liming, 38, a migrant worker from Hebei, has been working for the last several months paving over the electric cables that supply power to the Olympic stadiums. He earns about $6 a day for 10 hours of work, spending months at a time away from his family. He says he can’t imagine attending next year’s Games in the stadiums he’s helping to erect.

Not only are the ticket prices beyond his reach, he and his colleagues also expect to be forced out of Beijing as they are during Communist Party congresses and other high-profile events.

“I doubt we’d be allowed into Beijing,” he said, dressed in a red construction helmet and green camouflage pants. “They put limits in place, check our IDs on buses and highway toll gates and turn us back.”

Zhang Huimin says she’s not turning back in her bid to reach Beijing, as she dodges potholes while a steady stream of dump trucks, pig carts and cement mixers rumble by on the four-lane highway in central China’s Henan province. She has been running and walking an average of 50 miles a day for five weeks straight and expects to reach the capital Aug. 28, giving her enough time to return home before school starts.

She’s followed by two cars and an electric motorbike as, at various times, her father, older brother or members of a sports clothing sponsorship team run alongside. “Faster,” her father calls out at one point. “Let’s keep up the pace, only a few more kilometers to go today.”

Her father acknowledges that he’s living through his 8-year-old daughter but denies exploiting or mistreating her.

“You can see how much fun she’s having,” he says. “Some people say I’m forcing her, but even when I sit in the car she doesn’t complain and keeps on going.”

Her father says she can run a 3-hour, 51-minute marathon. He holds out hope that his daughter will become the professional athlete he never was, helping pull her out of poverty.

As the group reaches the hotel about 12:30, the 1,523-mile mark or about three-quarters of the way to Beijing, Huimin pulls off her running shoes and massages her aching feet before heading up to her room to watch cartoons. “My dream is to have my own Olympic gold medal in 2016,” she says.

“Gold of course.”

Yin Lijin and Gu Bo in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.