2008: A question of liberty -- Beijing's (Olympics) bid is controversial (DP) Bruce Finley Denver Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 06, 2001 - BEIJING - Red digits on a countdown clock blink out the days until the International Olympic Committee chooses which country will host the 2008 Summer Games.
An enormous scroll unfurled from China's Great Wall recently proclaimed "Success to Beijing!" and "We will win!"
At bid committee headquarters,architect Steven Gao showed off his model of a remade Beijing, from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, where emperors sipped tea, to sparkling modern sports facilities.
The 2008 Olympics, Gao said, will be "the continuation of traditional China culture."
Many agree with him that China is a likely bet to host the Games. Commercial sponsors - primarily U.S. corporations - want access to 1.3 billion Chinese. Olympic movement leaders want to take the Games to regions such as China, Africa and South America that haven't yet hosted the Olympics. China lost the 2000 Games to Australia by two votes.
But China remains relatively isolated despite two decades of economic opening. And just as campaigning in Beijing culminates with nationalistic public displays, China faces increasing conflict with the United States over human rights and military postures that threaten to turn confrontational.
The conflict gives grist for a renewed debate over whether China deserves to host the Olympics. China's communist leaders bristle. They figured China already has done plenty to win global acceptance.
New freedoms are allowed here and spreading, said Wang Wei, secretary general of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee.
"China people, now we can comment on government affairs. That's a change that has taken place," Wang said.
And the 2008 Olympics would be a "catalyst" for more change, Wang said, "for human rights as well." Changes "will not be as fast," he said, if China's bid fails.
Beijing's success also could help U.S. interests in hosting the 2012 Olympics, Wang added.
"It will be very hard" for the U.S. to host the 2012 Games if Toronto hosts the Olympics in '08, he said. "It's very important not to let Toronto have it this time."
Yet, opposition from some Americans is adamant. That is especially true after last month's detention of a U.S. spy plane crew for 11 days and the continuing clash over returning the plane.
Hosting the Olympics "brings a certain status to a city and a country," Gov. Bill Owens said. "I don't think, given China's human rights record, that it would be any more appropriate to have had the Olympics in Cape Town," South Africa, under apartheid.
Cleaning up Beijing
On July 13, IOC members will meet in Moscow to select a host for the 2008 Games. Competing with Beijing are Istanbul, Turkey; Osaka, Japan; Paris; and Toronto, Canada. U.S influence is limited, with four U.S. members on the 126-person committee. Ballots IOC members cast in a multi-round elimination process are secret. Members from candidate countries can't vote.
IOC members this month are to receive technical reports from committee experts who visited and evaluated candidate cities. The reports are supposed to focus on site preparations - not politics. And on that score, China has begun an all-out push including flashy proposals for beach volleyball and other events to be conducted at Tiananmen Square, site of China's massacre of pro-democracy supporters in 1989.
Consider the $12.2 billion Olympic environmental clean-up Beijing launched after teaming up with a Denver-area company.
Some of the world's deadliest pollution hangs over Beijing.
Congested masses here hack and wheeze as they move through the corrosive gray murk. Breathing 24 hours of the pollution from factories, coal-fired power plants and thickening traffic is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, according to world health authorities. Beijing is one of several Chinese cities where, Chinese authorities reported this past decade, air pollution caused millions of deaths.
China's government accepted that Beijing's pollution could choke the throats - and memories - of visiting IOC technical experts. So, in 1998, China turned to CH2M Hill.
A 12,000-employee engineering firm based in Greenwood Village, CH2M Hill has contracted to clean up messes from New York's toxic Love Canal to the Rocky Flats radioactive nuclear weapons waste west of Denver.
In February, when the IOC experts arrived in Beijing for inspections, CH2M Hill's Managing Director for China, Sarah Liao, presented the "Action Plan for a Green Olympics":
- Plant millions of fast-growing trees throughout Beijing (pop. 12 million) covering 100 square kilometers - an area the size of Denver International Airport. The goal: Improve air quality and shield Beijing from Gobi Desert dust that mixes with smog.
- Reduce urban industrial pollution by moving factories away from Beijing. - Double sewage treatment capacity so that most wastewater is re-cycled.
- Convert 90 percent of Beijing buses and 70 percent of taxis to clean-burning natural gas.
- Urge every citizen to recycle at least half their garbage.
IOC experts recorded this in detail. Americans and Chinese involved contend this sort of U.S.-China cooperation could prove far more effective than confrontation for both countries - and the world - in the future.
"I think Beijing deserves the Olympics," said CH2M Hill chief executive Ralph Peterson, who was in Beijing on business last month during the spy plane standoff.
Chinese leaders "have made tremendous progress" over the past two decades, Peterson said. Letting Beijing host the Olympics now "is a matter of encouraging China's active participation in the global community."
IOC vice president Dick Pound, one of five contenders to succeed outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch this July, applauded China's environmental clean-up efforts during a Denver Post interview.
"I don't know whether it could win it for them," Pound said, "but it would certainly take out of play a major concern that might otherwise be a question mark."
Pound won't vote because he's Canadian and Toronto is a contender for the 2008 Games. But he's familiar with IOC thinking. The spy plane incident, Pound said, "is not going to play much of a role at all. I don't see that as even being on the radar screen come July 13."
But rancorous U.S.-China relations raged anew after President Bush's recent assertion that the U.S. will back Taiwan, which China regards as a rebellious province, militarily if necessary. Last week, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld downgraded U.S. military relations with China, and China warned that President Bush's proposed missile defense system will set off an arms race that could threaten world peace. Bush then lashed out at China for not allowing greater religious freedom, denouncing this as a sign of weakness.
In the U.S. Congress, lawmakers want to use the Olympics as a political wedge to punish China. Some 60 House members and more in the Senate have sponsored bipartisan resolutions that the 2008 Olympics should not be conducted in Beijing unless China releases all political prisoners and improves civil liberties.
Support is strong, said U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., on the House International Relations Committee.
"This doesn't mean we end trade with China," Tancredo said, casting the resolution he co-sponsored as political "cover" for those leery of cutting economic ties. "This is a statement that needs to be made. China and the world need to see that there is strong concern in the United States about human rights in China and the aggressive nature of the regime."
Whether any of this will make any difference is unclear. European leaders recently declined to join the United States in sponsoring a United Nations censure of China. Choosing an Olympics site is up to IOC members - not Congress.
But the highest-ranking U.S. member - IOC vice president Anita DeFrantz - said, "I always take very seriously the opinions expressed by Congress." She discussed human rights in China recently with Amnesty International Director William Schulz.
DeFrantz is another candidate to succeed Samaranch, the outgoing IOC president. As an Olympic rower in 1980, she went to court to oppose the U.S. government boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet DeFrantz said her vote in July will depend mostly on what athletes want, including any concerns athletes may voice regarding China's human rights. "I am listening to many arguments," DeFrantz said.
The U.S. State Department's latest assessment describes worsening human rights in China, including crackdowns on religion and the Falun Gong spiritual movement, a blend of meditation and stretching that has attracted millions of Chinese followers. The report also documents repression of minority groups such as Tibetans, and suppression of political dissent.
Some human rights groups now are re-focusing their campaigns against China to challenge Beijing's Olympics bid.
In Denver recently, Students for a Free Tibet, with 600 chapters nationwide, launched a campaign under the banner "No Olympics for China until Tibet is Free." College and high school students sent hundreds of letters to IOC leaders: "Say No to Beijing 2008." And Tibetan immigrants across the United States are mailing white silk "khata" prayer scarves as reminders that China punishes Tibetans who challenge Chinese rule, said campaign leader Tenzing Jigme, 32, a Tibetan student at the University of Colorado in Denver.
"America has so many economic ties to China, people don't want to mess around," Jigme said. "But the Olympics is one area where you can maybe send a warning."
'We want to vote'
In Beijing, news that anybody opposes Beijing's bid brought scowls from residents who overwhelmingly support hosting the Olympics. Even some democracy advocates contend the Games would promote positive change.
"There's room to improve the system," said Liu Dageng, 33, at a restaurant with his wife, who was at Tiananmen Square shortly before China's 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.
"We want to vote, of course."
But denying the Olympics to try to force change misconstrues the Games "as a kind of gift," Liu said. That "hurts the Olympics," he said. "Keep it simple. This is against the Olympic spirit."
IOC officials have conducted the Games in politically controversial places before - the Soviet Union in 1980, South Korea in '88 when Korea technically was at war and the government clashed regularly with labor demonstrators, and Spain in '92 when sometimes-violent Basque separatists were active. Some Olympics leaders say the Games can boost human rights in host countries.
The blotch on that argument is Berlin, in 1936, where the Olympics gave Hitler a platform shortly before he led the Holocaust killing of 6 million European Jews.
Now in Beijing, residents eager to impress the world are trying to help China's Olympics campaign. They can't do much about their government's approach to human rights and military buildup with missiles aimed at Taiwan - which many support. But growing numbers participate in the "Action Plan for a Green Olympics."
A new Olympics-driven activism is emerging in some areas, with restaurant operators considering whether to ban smoking. University students recently debated forest-friendly alternatives to China's reliance on wood for hundreds of millions of chopsticks.
In the Chen Shou Yuan neighborhood southwest of Tiananmen Square, residents planted trees, grass and flowers for an Olympics Park amid their apartment towers.
Friends played pingpong in the park one recent evening, and factory janitor Song Yue Ze, 49, laughed about the U.S.-China spy plane standoff, pounding his fists together. Then he played tour guide, pointing out how pleasant Beijing neighborhoods can be. "I want your vote," Song said.
And Liu Hung Ngor, apartment manager, earnestly taped up a handwritten sign at the base of a stairwell. The sign urged residents to go to the apartment office and pick up a new gas nozzle, free, to attach to their stoves and limit pollution.
"It will be much cleaner," Liu said. "We want Beijing to be able to host the Olympics. And by hosting the Olympics, we can tell the world what we are like. We are proud of our heritage."