Let the Games Beijing

Mary-Anne Toy
July 5, 2008

All 37 Olympic venues have been declared fully functioning, including 12 new venues such as the iconic Bird's Nest National Stadium and the Water Cube aquatic centre.

The entire city appears to have been scrubbed clean, repainted or rebuilt, but there are some surprise omissions in store for visitors to Beijing during the Games.

There is no greater icon of Beijing and modern China than Tiananmen Square so it is surprising that when the authorities were deciding how best to showcase "5000 years of culture" and the "new modern China, new Beijing" for the Olympics, they decided to leave out China's National Museum.

The museum, intended to be the "supreme hall of culture and art for the Chinese nation", has effectively been demolished from the inside out, with just its northern, western and southern facades remaining so that it doesn't look too strange during the Olympics.

The controversial redevelopment of the main street of the historic Qianmen neighbourhood, south of Tiananmen Square, into a refurbished Qing dynasty street will also not be ready in time for the Olympics.

The rebuilding of the street (97 per cent of the area has been demolished and businesses evicted) with traditional Chinese architecture housing "time-honoured" Chinese businesses, along with selected foreign brands such as Prada, Apple and Starbucks, was to be a key part of the Olympic marathon route.

The marathon will still run down restored Qianmen street, which runs along the sacred north-south axis - but the beautifully created shopfronts will be empty.

Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut, who already has restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai, hoped to open her first Beijing outlet, a 400-seat restaurant with a terrace overlooking Tiananmen Square, in time for the Olympics, but several months ago she and other retailers including Apple quietly shelved that timetable after it became clear the 17-block, 36-hectare project would not be completed by August 8. It is now scheduled to open next year.

The Olympic Forest Park - Beijing's massive new 680-hectare "green lung" - will also not be ready until mid next year. Although the artificial lake and mountain backdrop are substantially in place, the park will be opened only to 5000 athletes and Olympic officials and 20,000 local residents (ticket only) during the Games, because massive security forces to protect the city are likely to be stationed there.

Gilbert van Kerckhove, a business consultant who has been advising the Beijing Olympics organising committee and has lived in Beijing since 1980, says no one will care about unfinished projects such as Qianmen, the National Museum or Olympic Forest Park because the overall transformation of the city, from its water and sewerage up, has been so extraordinary.

"What they want to be ready will be ready. It won't be as bad as in Greece when they were still working an hour before opening, but there may be small hiccups, which are normal. Beijing is probably better prepared than any other city," says van Kerckhove.

"Even if they screw up something, this is China and they can put 10,000 guys on the job and finish it overnight."

Arup, the global engineering and design consultancy with 9000 staff worldwide, a quarter of them in China, has managed to snare an unprecedented share of some of the most critical new developments in Beijing. These include the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube and other Olympic venues as well as the new Beijing International airport.

The director in charge of Chinese business development at Arup, Michael Kwok, says the capital has squeezed 15 years of development into seven years since it won the right to host the 2008 Games in 2001.

When he moved here in 2000 to open Arup's Beijing office he was astonished at how "underdeveloped, underserviced" the city was. In terms of quality office space, there were basically two options, the Kerry Centre and the World Trade Centre.

He says political leaders seemed to have designated Shanghai and Shenzhen, in southern China, the first area opened to foreign enterprises after China embarked on its opening and reform policy after 1978, as the "experimental laboratory" for modernisation, while Beijing was left lagging.

"[China joining the] WTO and the Olympics have been very much a catalyst for Beijing to catch up This whole fast-forwarding has pushed Beijing to really take a big step forward as a world city and become a lot more welcoming, a lot more liveable than six to seven years ago," says Kwok.

"People are now talking about Beijing as the place to visit These stadiums aren't just stadiums, they are permanent monuments that reflect much more than two or three weeks of Games. They are the thinking and aspiration of how Beijing wants the world to see it."

Kwok is not bothered that key projects that will define the city for decades - including the extraordinary new home of the national broadcaster, CCTV (China Central Television) which has been described as a pair of walking legs or two splayed fingers - won't be ready in time for the Olympics.

"I would prefer they take a longer time to finish projects that aren't 100 per cent essential for the Olympics so they are of high quality, rather than just rushed jobs to meet deadlines which sometimes happens in China where too much decision-making is based on politics.

"Life goes on after the Olympics."

What worries many long-term foreign residents of the city, such as van Kerckhove, is that Beijing during the month-long Olympics and Paralympics will be lifeless.

"The vibrant life we have in Beijing will be killed off for security reasons and pollution during the Olympics," van Kerckhove says.

He says that despite the extraordinary transformation, the city authorities still have not solved two key issues - traffic and pollution - and after the violent and widespread Tibet protests they are also terrified of any demonstrations or disturbances during the Games.

Their answer, he says, will be to shut down offices, factories, bars and restaurants, kicking out hundreds of thousands of people such as migrant workers and other minorities from the city. He says they are also making it much more difficult for long-term foreign residents and business people and tourists to get visas.

The toughened visa rules that came into operation in April have stranded thousands of foreigners outside China unable to renew visas, even when they have businesses and families here.

New rules effectively eliminating multiple-entry visas for foreign business people based in Hong Kong to commute across the border to visit mainland factories caused an outcry when they came into effect.

Chinese embassies and consulates around the world have stopped issuing visas valid for longer than 30 days, and prospective tourists have had to show hotel reservations, plane tickets and other documents in order to get a visa at all.

While it is arguable that China has been far too lenient in issuing visas previously, the timing of this crackdown has caused an unexpected slump in tourist numbers and hotel bookings are far below the 90 per cent predicted.

This has been exacerbated by the difficulty in foreigners getting tickets. Only 25 per cent of the 7.1 million tickets were reserved for foreigners - half the percentage of Athens in 2004 - because of the massive demand from Chinese citizens.

"Many tourists who want to come won't be able to and the Chinese don't care because they say the Olympic Games are for television and it will be picture perfect on TV so screw the others," van Kerckhove says.

"This won't be Sydney 2000," he says, referring to the relaxed party atmosphere of the 2000 Olympics.

"This is not going to be spontaneous Many food and beverage outlets will be closed or taken over by countries or corporations for Olympic hospitality. It will very much be a dead city, where nothing will be allowed that is not scripted by the Chinese Communist Party."