Beijing in Transformational Mode Ahead of Olympics

By John Vause


BEIJING ~ Mrs. Wang, who runs my corner grocery store, seems happy enough. Together we count 12 cranes working within a few city blocks. Through broken English and Chinese, she tells me it’s a sight to make a Beijinger proud. To her the construction represents progress, that China’s economy is ticking over nicely, and even more so, getting ready to show the world just how far it has come – far enough to host the Olympics.

China only reentered the Olympic family at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and now 23 years later, there are dizzy ambitions of staging “the most excellent games ever,” as one government agency wrote.

How they’ll do it does not seem to be a question asked by many.

Talk to any taxi driver, and they will complain bitterly about Beijing’s traffic, but they seem convinced that the government will have that solved by August next year.

Mrs. Wang is equally convinced.

“The government will take care of it,” she says without a second thought. And the reality is she’s probably right. The Communist leaders in Beijing are so determined to make the Olympics a success there’s talk they won’t rein in the stock market before then, fearing a backlash from millions of disgruntled shareholders.

And here there are no pesky homeowners rights to worry about when it comes to redeveloping sites. The government and developers simply order the construction crews to move in.

Just talk to Mr. and Mrs. Suun, who live a few blocks from me in an old apartment block in the shadow of construction of the architecturally dazzling new headquarters for CCTV. Two giant L-shaped buildings linked at the top – to the uneducated or the just unappreciative it looks like two giant hockey sticks leaning against each other. To put it simply, the Suuns are just in the way. They say they’ve been forced out, harassed by strange unidentified men, their electricity cut, and while the CCTV tower will cost about US$750 million, they say they have been offered just a few hundred dollars to move out.

“There’s no such thing as human rights in China,” says Mr. Suun. And when we put their story to air, Chinese censors worked overtime, blocking out the report for Chinese viewers (CNN, like all other international news broadcasters, is on a 14-second delay in China).

There is also concern that in the rush to rebuild this city, it is losing its soul along the way. Ben Wood, an American architect who has saved some of the historic districts of Shanghai, is scathing when it comes to Beijing. The city, he says, is beyond redemption – the wrecking ball has gone too far.

“I think from an urban design point of view it’s, they’re beyond the pale. In other words, they’re over the edge. They are not going to go back and make the streets more humane.”

Whatever is happening in Beijing, good or bad, it’s happening for a bargain price. Migrant workers from the country, desperate for a job, are paid about $120 a month, making sure Beijing’s Olympic venues are built for just a fraction of what they would cost in Atlanta or Sydney.

Everywhere it seems this city is being rebuilt – spending tens of billions of dollars on everything from Olympic venues to an expanded subway system, new airport terminal, roads, roads and more roads. All not only on schedule, but last year officials ordered the slowing of construction at Olympic sites because of concerns they would be completed long before the Games (and incur hefty maintenance costs).

The government has appointed an “Etiquette Czar” to try and improve the manners of the locals – although when CNN arranged to interview Ms. Zhang Huiguag, she stood us up.

American volunteers are working with local officials to unravel the “Chinglish” around the city – that special blend of English and Chinese which ends with translations in menus like “Pee Soup” and signs in bathrooms which advise “Please Slip carefully.”

All of this is to present to the world a polite, well-spoken, modern city of glass and steel – with Chinese Characters.

But the real goal of any Olympics should be how they will improve the lives of those who live in the host city. When I asked Mrs. Wang what she thought what benefit the Games would bring to her, she seemed a little confused, eventually smiling and saying, “The Olympics will be glorious.”

John Vause is CNN’s Beijing correspondent and reports for Countdown Beijing, the network’s dedicated coverage from the Chinese capital airing August 4–12. More at

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