As Beijing warms up for the 2008 Olympic Games, the organisers face a few tough heats before they reach the finals. The host of the summer Games stumbled badly with the SARS epidemic, though it has since regained its footing. But it still faces a worrisome security challenge and has yet to show it can sort out problems such as a shortage of transport and an overdose of pollution.
SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) certainly gave the organisers a scare, although they can count themselves fortunate that the virus emerged when it did and not closer to the start of the Games. In addition to killing some 350 people and infecting more than 5,300 in China alone, the outbreak dealt the nation's tourism sector a huge setback, handing it what is likely to be the first drop in tourist revenues since 1989. SARS has sent China's airlines deeply into the red, led to the closure of thousands of businesses and could shave half a percentage point off economic growth for the year.
But the preparations for the 2008 Games felt only a modest impact.
"SARS didn't hurt us that much," said Jiang Xiaoyu, vice chairman of the organising committee. The committee's spokesman echoed that line. "Everything is proceeding according to plan," said Sun Weijia.
Delayed sponsorship drive
The Beijing organising committee concedes that some visits to China by officials of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to be cancelled but video conferences filled the gap. SARS also delayed the launch of the Olympic logo and the sponsorship drive but those setbacks were temporary.
The organisers were more than a bit lucky. During the SARS outbreak, construction projects across the capital ground to a halt as migrant workers were ordered home. But construction on the Olympic facilities is not scheduled to begin until later this year.
More than half of the 35 stadiums and gymnasiums have yet to be built. So far, the organisers have decided on the design for the national stadium, which will look like a steel version of a huge bird's nest. Acontract has been signed for an open tender to decide who does the construction work – which is expected to begin in December. The national swimming centre, the Beijing indoor shooting range and a velodrome all are set for construction to start by the end of the year. Work starts on most of the others by mid-2004 and the schedule calls for completion in 2006.
A more important setback was the damage to Beijing's image as it tried to cover up the SARS crisis. Only after a public tongue-lashing from the World Health Organisation did it reluctantly admit to the seriousness of its problems.
The WHO privately grumbles that China is not sharing data with the rest of the world – making it more difficult to trace the path of the disease and find its elusive cure. What worries organisers, and health officials, is the potential for another outbreak perhaps later in the year when the weather turns colder and may be more conducive to the SARS virus. The Beijing Centre for Disease Control has recently stepped up surveillance at fever clinics. However, there remain concerns about whether Beijing will be prepared should the virus reappear and will the world believe what it has to say?
Meanwhile, the IOC has asked Beijing to budget an additional US$400m for security. This is probably a prudent request in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US, the war in Iraq, two deadly bombings aimed at Westerners in Indonesia and news that Al Qaeda may have had plans to attack the Sydney Games in 2000.
"Something has happened in the world, especially the terrorists attack on America, and the IOC hoped we could increase our budget to no lower than US$2bn," said Jiang of the organising committee.
It is unclear who will contribute the bulk of those funds but it could mean the difference between profit and loss. Organisers had planned to spend US$1.61bn on stadiums and other Games-related facilities, which would yield a small profit.
"The Olympics are a gem on the world calendar," says Peter Humphrey, China country manager for Kroll Inc, the international security company. "The world's spotlight is on the host country and a terrorist threat is not to be excluded. It's perfectly reasonable to require modern, state-of-the-art security for an event of this magnitude."
A report published last month by the World Markets Research Centre placed China as the 52nd country most at risk from terrorism out of 186 countries assessed. Outside the far-western region of Xinjiang, the report concluded that much of China can be considered at low risk from terrorism. However, Gareth Leather, the company's Greater China analyst, concedes that the Olympic Games would be a good target for international terrorists.
Chinese Olympic officials have declined to outline details of the new defence measures to protect Beijing. But Humphrey said it is doubtful that China has the resources, know-how or capability to organise the level of security needed. While it has held the Asian Games and other international political gatherings, it has never hosted anything like the Olympics and will probably need help from overseas specialists.
While China has been relatively stable since 1989, it still faces potential threats from several corners. It has a small dissident movement, though for the most part one that pursues its goals peacefully. The banned Falun Gong sect has staged embarrassing protests and even disrupted broadcast signals of official television stations.
More menacing is the potential unrest from Muslim separatists in the far western region of Xinjiang. Separatists have at times been behind acts of sabotage in Beijing and other Chinese cities. A handful of Islamic militants from Xinjiang were enrolled at Osama Bin Laden's training camps before the terrorist outposts in Afghanistan were destroyed in US-led attacks. Moreover, Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups might use the games as a convenient platform to strike at Western interests.
While Beijing tries to thwart terror networks, it must show it can build up its own infrastructure to make the Olympics a success. It plans to spend a total of Yn230bn if the infrastructure improvements are included. Beijing has vowed to expand and modernise its highways. The recently completed fourth ring road, an eight-lane expressway that encircles the city centre, has been renamed the Olympic Boulevard, and will be followed by a fifth and sixth ring road, both of which should be ready by 2006.
Beijing's existing two subway lines and commuter rail line are slated to be joined by an Olympic Subway, an airport link and other lines that will nearly triple the length of the rail system to more than 300km by 2008. Some 50 new bus routes a year, computerised traffic control systems and taxis equipped with Global Positioning System navigation equipment are planned to further improve transport.
On the environmental front, Beijing faces even higher hurdles. The use of highly polluting coal is scheduled to be phased out in favour of natural gas, and 200 factories still in the city centre will be forced to move or adopt cleaner production equipment.
To deflect the advances of desert on its outskirts and the loss of protective forests, Beijing says it will erect a green shield around the city. The organising committee says that 'trees will cover 70 per cent of Beijing's mountainous areas by 2007'. It will also develop more than 23,000 hectares of green belts along major rivers and roads and 12,000 hectares of forest strips to separate the city from the surrounding countryside.
Fighting the sandstorms that often engulf the city is being made a top priority by a new environmental centre jointly set up by the United Nations Environment Programme and Shanghai's Tongji University. "Klaus Toepfer [UNEP's executive director] has proposed that the UNEP-Tongji Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development start work as soon as possible on studying the sandstorms that threaten Beijing," says Liu Suiqing, a Tongji dean who heads the new school. "We are already working on a detailed plan to fight these sandstorms in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics."
The new Olympic Park, showcase of the development for the Games, could rival the current city centre near the Communist Party's headquarters in the Forbidden City, and the university district of the city, often called China's Silicon Valley, according to Du Baicao, a senior researcher at the China Architecture Design and Research Group.
"It seems inevitable that Beijing's business, cultural and commercial centre will move from the traditional centre – which in the geographical centre of Beijing – to the northeastern areas," Du says.
That assessment may be slightly premature but real estate developers say that the area surrounding the future Olympic Park is becoming a much more desirable site for residential development.
Beijing has five years to prove it can make its own vision of the future come true: a 'green' city with modern transport and a bit more openness. Many experts say that, with the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is being given a chance to recast its image for the better.
"I have great expectations for the Olympic Games," says Liu Deqian, a professor at Beijing Tourism College. "The world media will step up their coverage of Beijing as 2008 gets closer, and this will push Beijing and the government to be more careful of their image. The impressions the world forms of Beijing during the 2008 Games will linger long afterwards, and knowledge of that fact is already influencing the government."