China: Beijing Olympics under a cloud

How will the Games benefit the mass of the Chinese people?

pdf version, opens in new window

Beijing Olympics under a cloud

On a recent trip to India, said to have cost around £750,000 of public money, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone offered the Bollywood film industry a cheap deal for the use of some of the Olympic buildings in East London after the Games of 2012 are over. He is obviously keen to find ways of paying off the mountain of bills that appears to get higher by the day!

Earlier this year, the mayor travelled to Beijing, to see for himself how the regime in China was coping with being hosts of the 2008 Olympic Games. That trip, probably no less extravagant, was sponsored by the private firm ‘Freud’ – a company which happens to be run by the son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon against whom Livingstone has railed on a number of occasions…including in Beijing! There in April this year he likened Tiananmen Square to Trafalgar Square.

He was asked about his attitude to the events of May–June, 1989, when the mass movement for democratic rights was crushed with 3,000 killed as tanks were sent in by the dictatorship.

Amnesty International has been far more direct. In the July/August issue of Amnesty Magazine it reviews the promises made six years ago on Human Rights when Beijing was ‘awarded’ the 2008 Games. It lists 10 serious violations across the country which they say are “fuelling instability and discontent”.

Human rights violations

China’s one-party regime executes more people each year than the rest of the world put together; two thirds of the 68 crimes punishable by death are non-violent crimes. Re-education through Labour’ camps have been used to hold critics of the dictatorship for up to four years without charge or trial. RTL is also being used, the report says, to “clean up” Beijing in time for the Olympics. ‘Evidence’ in courts can be the result of torture and verdicts given after political interference. Many prisoners, subjected to torture, die in custody.

There has been no independent inquiry into the crack-down at Tiananmen Square nearly 20 years ago and dozens of people arrested then remain in prison. There is widespread internet repression, with sentences ranging from two to twelve years. Religious groups are persecuted and tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners held in prison. Independent trade unions are illegal; the authorities have used intimidation and long prison sentences to try and suppress “a wave of labour disputes” against low wages, mass lay-offs and corrupt management practices.

Harsh repression against the Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang province and hundreds of Tibetans, including Buddhist monks and nuns, are in prison, subjected to torture and dying in custody.

Groups like ‘Reporters Without Borders’, ‘China Solidarity’ and the ‘Committee for the Support of Tibetan People’ complained from the very beginning to the International Olympic Committee about Beijing being chosen to hold this prestigious event, meant to celebrate humanity itself. They said it was the equivalent of holding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when the Nazis were in power.

The IOC rejected the objections and said, “A Beijing Games would leave a unique legacy to China and to sports”. Equated with the award of the Olympics to Japan in 1964 and South Korea in 1988, the event is seen as an economic ‘coming-out party’. But Amnesty International says that far from improving, as the Chinese economy has opened up to the world, repression in China is getting worse.

Economic benefits

The Chinese economy will undoubtedly get a boost from the vast sums being spent on the Olympics, including two billion dollars on advertising. The regime hopes to get its ‘flagship’ companies, few of whom have established brands domestically, let alone abroad, better known as four billion TV viewers look on. But, according to China Daily, investment in Olympics-related projects is just 0.59 per cent of China’s annual investment. The ‘Communist’ Party chiefs claim that if this means it will have little effect on the world’s fastest expanding economy. But by the same token, this means it will not suffer the same kind of post-Olympic slowdown that beset the much smaller Greek economy after the Athens Games.

So will anything change for the better for the majority of the 1.3 billion population of this vast country who languish in poverty? Many hundreds of millions of them will still have no regular electricity supply, let alone television sets to watch the Games. The majority have no guaranteed supply of fresh water. Few, if any, now have access to free health and education provision. They lack many basic provisions as well as all basic democratic rights.

When capitalism and landlordism were first eliminated from Chinese society, as Mao Tse Tung and the peasant-based Red Army came to power after the Second World War, workers and poor farmers had no involvement in running the planned economy. There were no committees of democratically elected workers and peasants as in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Mao maintained a totalitarian grip on society.

Now, with the attempt of the ‘Communist’ Party leaders to carry through a controlled return to capitalism, the population not only remains without basic workers’ and democratic rights, but the majority are mired in poverty. The Chinese regime was never genuinely socialist or communist, in spite of the huge economic advantages of state ownership and planning. Today, in spite of paying lipservice to Marxist ideas and egalitarianism, the ruling clique presides over a country which, according to the Asia Development Bank, along with Nepal, has the largest gap between rich and poor

While half a million or so international visitors swarm into Beijing and populate the smart hotels, bars and restaurants, inflation will roar. Prices on basic foods like pork and eggs already increased by 45 and 30 percent respectively this year, putting them beyond the reach of many of the rural as well as urban poor.

Journalists and dissidents

As many as 30,000 foreign journalists are expected to visit China next year to cover the Games. All will be closely vetted, and the International Herald Tribune reported in the summer that the regime has ordered its security services to prepare lists of all “potentially troublesome foreign organisations” including evangelical Christians and anti-Sudanese activists. It quotes a consultant for Beijing’s Olympic organisers as saying: “Demonstrations of all kinds are a concern, including anti-American demonstrations”. But there are also “disaffected domestic groups: Tibetan separatists, farmers upset at land confiscations and Falun Gong – a spiritual movement that the government has suppressed as a cult”.

In the run-up to the Communist Party Congress and well before the Games, numerous journalists, lawyers and other critics of the government were being rounded up. Some are simply ‘disappeared’, others tortured mercilessly. Many of the Chinese sentenced to death each year are accused of fomenting social unrest. An open letter to the government from 40 prominent dissidents in China, calls for an amnesty for all political prisoners estimated to total 25,000.

But the tank-like Chinese state rolls on, crushing its citizens and ignoring practically every human and democratic right that is recognised (if by no means always practiced) in the rest of the world. A similar metaphor is used in an article in the Times of 27 November which says, “Many believe that China’s leaders have trapped themselves on a growth juggernaut, terrified of the unrest that would follow if the growth rate fell much below 9 per cent”. But it also writes that, “The one advantage of a one-party state, and a still substantially planned economy is that when it moves it will move fast…”.

No expense spared

The other advantage the Chinese state has over the London administration is that its coffers are full to overflowing. Livingstone will be acutely aware that for the Olympics, no expense has been spared in Beijing. $38 billion has been allocated – double even the oft-revised budget for London.

No problems either with awkward house owners, travellers or allotment holders; no fears of disruptive strikes or other escalating costs. The English newspaper, the Guardian, summed up the advantages for Beijing’s authorities last year: “Land can be requisitioned, and labourers toil for little more than 1,000 yuan (£70 or $140) a month. With no unions, they can also be made to work round the clock, which means fewer time over-runs”.

Ken Livingstone’s recent attacks on London’s RMT-organised tube workers have undoubtedly been aimed at deterring other workers from considering strike action in pursuit of decent wages and conditions on the East London building sites. Beijing has no such problem with trade unions and strikes being illegal. (There are anyway, 4 million ‘bangbang men’ – casual labourers in Beijing amongst the 20 million population. They have fled poverty in the countryside and are prepared to work for little more than the price of a bowl of rice.)

No fears about slippage on dead-lines in Beijing, either. The 38 new venues and stadiums are either complete or ahead of schedule. The new dragon-shaped Beijing airport, on which 40,000 builders are at work, will be the biggest in the world, far larger than Heathrow. Three new mass transit lines are also on schedule. (The pop anthem for the launching of the count-down to the Games this summer was entitled “We’re ready!”. One columnist in Britain said he was “looking forward to Girls Aloud’s 2011 release, ‘Does Wembley Have any Spare Capacity?’”.

David Smith wrote in his book on China and India (‘The Dragon and the Elephant’), “The city’s Olympic district, once the home of tens of thousands of low-income people, has been cleared of its occupants and flattened … the mobilisation of huge numbers of construction workers – 40,000 on the airport alone – is testimony to China’s huge resources of labour, but also its ability to pick up and dump people at will”. When their work is complete, wrote Deyan Sudjic in the Observer, “They will be shipped back to their distant villages, and two centuries back in time, leaving the glossy new city they have built to the party elite and the foreigners” (Observer).

Whole communities have been physically destroyed. Resistance has been met with baton charges and teargas, just as all protests against land-grabs or environmental destruction and poisoning are.


There is one major head-ache that, even with all their authoritarian powers, next year’s Olympic organisers may not be able to cope with. Pollution!

Jokes have circulated for some time now about marathon runners carrying oxygen tanks on their backs or 10k swimmers wearing protective clothing. But it is possible that the ‘Communist’ Party tops will not be able to bring pollution down to acceptable levels by the time of the Olympics next year!

They have overseen the tripling in size in a decade of China’s economy, but have done little or nothing to protect the environment. Most of China’s main rivers are poisoned and this year China is reachinghe has rapidly reached the top of the world’s league of carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) emitters. 20 million people a year become ill with respiratory diseases. 600,000 premature deaths in urban areas are a direct result. The effects have been estimated to take 13% off total value production in China’s booming economy.

In Beijing, in spite of schemes to keep up to 2 million cars off the capital’s streets and the re-location of a Beijing steel-works and other factories out of the capital, the volume of fine particulates in the air is still twice the World Health Organisation’s recommended level and living in Beijing is said to be the equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day. The Beijing equivalent of Ken Livingstone, Liu Qi, will continue to put the blame on wind-born pollution from surrounding provinces.

Apart from Beijing, there are in China another 19 of the world’s 30 most smog-choked cities. Two thirds of China’s biggest cities have “unhealthy air” but factory-owners who violate state guidelines are often not prosecuted but protected by local officials, not without money changing hands! Jonathan Fenby writing in the Observer on 25 November comments that while central government obviously wants to tackle the huge environmental crisis, it also “hesitates to impose an effective crackdown on the polluting factories driving economic expansion.”

What will happen?

Many sports team managers around the world are now worrying about participating in the 2008 Games. Some are saying they will bring their competitors into the Beijing danger zone only at the last possible moment. Even the Games organisers themselves admit they may have to delay some of the events until the smog clears!

One or two other problems are proving difficult for the dictatorship to solve in spite of, or because of, their centralised control. It has promised the IOC to have a “third generation” (3G) mobile-phone network available in time for the Games. Detailing the crippling bottlenecks that arise from heavy state control, attempts to involve different telephone companies and a plethora of regulatory agencies, the Economist comments, “Foreign investors looking at China often swoon at the country’s vast potential but are driven mad by its conflicting and heavy-handed policies”.

Even the system for issuing tickets to the nearly two million hopeful spectators broke down after the first 9,000 purchases! The culprit here was an American firm ‘Ticketmaster’ brought in by the regime to demonstrate the efficiency of a joint venture with an experienced capitalist firm!

Walking a tightrope

Millions of Chinese turned out on 8th August this year in city squares across the country and along the Great Wall as the countdown to next year’s Games began. The time and date of the opening – 08.08 08/08/08 – is seen as very auspicious. Eight is said to be a lucky number. (As it happens, it was the time and date chosen by students twenty years earlier in Burma to begin their generalised struggle which led to a prolonged general strike – the most serious challenge to the rule of the generals!).

The Chinese regime is walking a tightrope of maintaining heavy state control with the introduction of more and more capitalist practices. As long as the economy goes forward, it is fairly confident of success. But most commentators agree that the Communist Party is sitting on a powder keg of unrest. The credit crunch hitting the world economy will have devastating effects in China and explosions of class struggle will result.

Some members of the ruling party cling to the idea that socialist phrases will help keep the lid on. The main leadership looks to nationalism. The 2008 Olympics offers them a chance to rally national sentiment. The ruling clique in Beijing will be hoping against hope that no major crises beset them before the Olympics are held. And, when the final ceremonies are over, their headaches could become even more painful

Socialists can be enthusiasts for sport, even for major international competitions. But our main concern is the struggle for a new society, free from of all forms of repression and discrimination, free from exploitation and environmental destruction. Only truly democratic socialist planning of publicly owned resources can begin to undo all the harm of past centuries and put us on the road to genuine harmony – between individuals and between nations.

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.