Heading full-tilt to 2008, China has to slow down

Building: After an enthusiastic start, Beijing is scaling down its more ostentatious plans.

Beijing

The Olympic Games

Prime-time coverage, closing ceremongy. TV: Ch. 11, 7 p.m.to 11 p.m.

August 29, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - For a city so consumed with remaking itself in time for the 2008 Olympics - building enough stadiums, roads and apartments to equip an entirely new capital - it is an odd sight: At the two highest-profile projects for the Beijing Games, the Olympic stadium and the swimming center, the work has all but stopped.

But no one seems nervous about finishing the projects on time. On the contrary, organizers are trying to make sure they don't finish too early.

When Athens was frantically working to be ready for this summer's Games, Beijing was laying foundations for structures that don't need to be finished for four more years. With more than $30 billion in stadium and infrastructure projects planned - nearly triple the amount spent by Greece - organizers had boasted about finishing all major work by the end of 2006, more than 18 months before the Beijing Games begin.

It was more than plausible. This is a city where residents can return to a cozy old haunt after a six-month hiatus to find it replaced by a new skyscraper already open for business. Construction on the 15 new stadiums planned for the Olympics was scheduled to begin by the end of this year.

But this summer, the International Olympic Committee asked Beijing to slow down. The IOC doesn't want centerpiece venues gathering dust for almost two years, and it doesn't want this construction-crazed capital to rush headlong into an Olympic building program that might be more ambitious and costly than necessary.

Now it appears that some of the 15 stadium projects will be scaled back or possibly scrapped, and that they certainly won't be finished too early.

"We will definitely not complete our projects too far in advance," said Shao Shiwei, a spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee. The new goal is to finish by the beginning of 2008.

"A building for the Olympics is just like an electric appliance," Shao said. "You cannot leave it there. It will wear out by itself."

Impressive display

In a striking contrast to Greece, the People's Republic of China has demonstrated a ruthless flair for central planning and execution in preparing for the Games. Exercising total control over the sites, the money, the planning bureaucracy, the construction companies and all other instruments of power, the government has shown how quickly an authoritarian system can act when motivated.

But as with the day-to-day governing of China, this unchecked power comes at a price, including a lack of accountability that can lead to waste and corruption. As often happens here, the winners are corrupt officials near the top, while the losers are the thousands of families who sacrifice their homes with no say in the matter.

The advantages of the authoritarian method will become visible throughout the city, beyond just the Olympic venues.

The government is working on a $22 billion transportation improvement project, planning to nearly double the miles of expressway and more than double the subway and light rail mileage. A 214,000-square-foot Olympic traffic control center is to be finished by the end of 2006. The airport has begun a $2.4 billion expansion. Factories are being uprooted and moved to distant locations - or being closed altogether - to reduce air pollution.

For any of these projects, government control of the land and of the interests involved makes for much quicker progress than if public opinion or legal proceedings were taken into account. The cheerleading state-controlled news media also help, contributing to an undeniable atmosphere of popular support for all things Olympic.

"All the people of Beijing are helping the city to develop," Shao said. "Polling shows that more than 90 percent of the citizens of Beijing support hosting the Olympics."

Misspent funds

But some of the disadvantages of the authoritarian method are already apparent. A government audit of the Beijing sports bureau - one of many agencies connected to the Olympics - uncovered $16 million in misspent Olympic funds, which were used to build apartments for sports bureau employees and were illegally invested in companies, according to state media reports.

Such skimming of public funds is pervasive in China, but Olympic skimming is embarrassing to authorities who are trying to show the world a clean, professional operation.

Displaced families

Another sensitive topic is the forced relocation of thousands of people to make large plots of land available for the Games. The government has moved 5,700 families, and many of the displaced were moved with little notice.

Many other commercial and residential projects in the city, being built in anticipation of 2008 but not officially related to the Olympics, also benefit from the government's ability to force thousands of families from their homes for meager compensation.

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