Global news media has widely discussed how well (or not) Beijing is preparing for the Olympics with regards to pollution control and infrastructure/superstructure development, but what about less widely publicized aspects of the preparation?
Beijing doesn’t have the same problem Athens had, where its infrastructure and superstructure construction for the 2004 Olympics was so far behind. Beijing has been able to complete all of its massive-scale construction projects on-time or ahead of schedule with cheap, migrant labor imported from the countryside. Thousands of workers have come in from rural areas across the country to build roads, subway lines, hotels, even the Olympic stadiums themselves. These people just float from job to job, staying in whatever barracks are provided by the employer. When the job finishes, the employer tears down the barracks (again in preparation for the Olympics) and the employees are forced to move on. So when Olympics construction is over and thousands of construction workers are left jobless and homeless in Beijing, what does the government plan to do? Remove them, preferably using incentives, but forcibly, if necessary. The government can’t have migrant workers cluttering the streets and sidewalks because Beijing has to have a clean, clear appearance for the Games. The government also can’t risk protests and complaints from these under- or unpaid workers during the Games. These workers need to be out of Beijing by August 8.Â Removing the workers is just another task to be completed in time for the Games.
Beijing has absolutely sprouted luxury housing developments in the past few years. Advertisements around the city, particularly in elevators, display the glamor and wealth that living in these new places convey. But will Olympics visitors see these advertisements? Nope, they are being removed so as to minimize the obviousness of the wealth gap. Beijing doesn’t want to make the difference between those who build the luxury accommodations and those who live in them any more apparent.
Beijing is also requiring all on-going construction projects to at least ‘look finished’ by the time the Games start. The government doesn’t want a city that still seems to be under construction. Though there will be construction projects within the 3rd Ring Road that won’t be finished by the time the games start, they are required to appear completed from the outside. Will this actually be the case? Questionable. More than once such a mandate and associated deadline have been issued; however, contractors have failed to comply and Beijing still looks like a construction site (think new CCTV building). It remains to be seen whether the completed look will be intact by August.
In an effort to reduce vehicle pollution and congestion on the roads, Beijing will take more than a million cars off the road during the Games. Whose cars are those? They’re all government cars. Beijing residents said that a test run made traffic move so much more smoothly; they got to where they were going in half the time. They also said the air quality greatly improved.
A large steel factory near Beijing was permanently closed and moved to the nearby port city of Tianjin. Other industries and factories will also be shut down either permanently or temporarily to improve air quality for the Games.
Beijing will of course be ready for the Games in terms of infrastructure and superstructure, but what about culturally and linguistically? Only a very small percentage of Beijing’s residents can speak English at a level as to be useful to tourists. Taxi drivers are a lost cause. For all that Beijing boasts to have invested in English training for taxi drivers, only a handful even have basics such as ‘hello,’ ‘bye,’ and ‘you American?’ said with a greedy look on their face. Most can’t understand “Olympics stadiums” and couldn’t speak English to save their life. What about other languages–French, Spanish, Arabic? Nope, not in the least.
The answer to whether Beijing is ready, culturally, to host more than half a million foreigners is complex, but the simple answer is, no. A few examples: spitting, smoking indoors, public urination and defecation, cutting in line, pushing at crosswalks. A more detailed example: any Chinese with a business mind (and they all have one) see the Games and this many tourists as a huge money-making opportunity. They can already envision themselves rolling in the cash that they’re going to make. How do I know this? Accommodation prices. Apartment owners won’t sign a new tenant lease that extends past July because they want to rent the apartment for more than $2000 per night during the Olympics. Crap hotels no foreigner would even consider other times of the year plan to charge upwards of $200 per night. What does this mean in the long-term? Olympics visitors will leave with such a poor impression of China they’ll tell everyone back home how horrible of a place China is thereby dissuading others from going to China. This will lead to a decline in China visitor arrivals and a decrease in tourism spending. This mentality of ‘why make $10 tomorrow when you can make a $1 today?’ is perhaps the prime example of how China is not culturally ready to host the Olympics.
Some aspects of the preparation for the Olympics almost seem too controlled, but other areas that are more meaningful to visitors can’t be made ready even by an authoritarian government.Â Will Beijing host a successful Olympics?Â Most likely.Â Will China receive long-term benefits including increasing visitor arrivals as a result of a positive feelings and good will created during the Olympics? Doubtful.