Thursday, August 21, 2008

Beijing Olympics: A party that wasn't

Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former president of the International Olympic Committee, once said that "without a lively, visible cultural programme that reflects the spirit of the host country, the Olympic games would be incomplete". Finding such a programme in Beijing is a challenge. Spontaneous fun is even more elusive.

Veteran Olympic-games correspondents (these games are my first) speak enthusiastically of street and beach parties at the games in Athens (2004) and Sydney (2000). With perhaps a touch of hyperbole, one tells me that Sydney was taken over by Norwegians with Viking hats and painted faces. I have yet to hear of, let alone encounter, any such revellers in Beijing.
Beijing's Olympic organisers promised the "biggest ever" cultural festival built around the Olympics--the "richest and most diverse in Olympic history," as one official described it. Journalists have been given a "culture guide" containing 100-odd pages of non-sporting events, from traditional Chinese opera to New Orleans jazz.

"Our purpose is to entertain our guests and visitors from all over the world", wrote the chief organiser, Liu Qi, in a foreword.
Sadly, the official guide to cultural events is a minefield of inaccuracies. When I try to buy tickets to some of the foreign musical performances, I am told they have been cancelled or rescheduled.

There are fewer people around to be entertained, anyway. China has tightened visa requirements for foreign visitors in order to keep "undesirables" out. At lunchtime on Sunday, my family and some friends are the only group at a normally popular Thai restaurant on the edge of the city. The manager says business has been getting slower and slower for the last few weeks.

Beijing's bars and nightclubs are doing somewhat better (apart from the ones that have been closed because they are deemed too close to Olympic facilities, or because they are just too seedy). Many of them had expected the police to start enforcing a long-forgotten rule that they close by 2am during the Olympics. So far, at least, the authorities have restrained themselves.
But some bar owners say they expected more customers. China's visa clampdown appears to have kept out the young, boisterous Norwegian-Viking types. And plenty of foreigners already in Beijing seem to have decided to stay at home and watch the Olympics on television, perhaps deterred by security measures on public transport and traffic snarls around Olympic venues. Taxi drivers complain that the bonanza they expected during the games has not materialised.

There is little feel in Beijing that a huge international event is underway. The ubiquitous Olympic banners and posters, and the crowds outside venues, remind people that something big is happening. But many parts of the city are quieter than normal, with factories closed (to avoid pollution), street vendors and beggars less visible (officials have put pressure on migrants from elsewhere to leave), outdoor markets shuttered and some citizens wangling a few days at home.

Tight security is also deterring many people from visiting the Olympic Green in the north of the city, where many of the stadiums are located. This annoys corporate sponsors, who had hoped to attract big crowds to displays they have erected there. The IOC says it has asked the organisers to allow more people into the heavily guarded zone (to add to the festive mood, armoured personnel-carriers have been deployed there).

The top priority of China's leaders is to ensure the games pass without major incidents (terrorism or protests) and that the sporting events are run smoothly. A Chinese friend tells me that he tried to climb a particularly scenic part of the Great Wall just outside Beijing, and was blocked by local vigilantes. They were on the lookout for people who might try to hang subversive banners from the edifice. Mr Liu's professed wish that all of us are "blessed with the best in entertainment" mainly applies, it seems, to what goes on in the stadiums.

(This column is part of a week-long diary about the Beijing Olympics, written by The Economist's correspondent in China, and published on


Anonymous Kevin S. Willis said...

Communist countrie just aren't that much fun, when it comes down to it. And people are really afraid of their government (instead of pretend afraid, the way they claim they are in America, even as the write books and making movies fantasizing about assassinating the sitting president of the United States with impunity--try that in Beijing!).

Ah, so.

5:04 PM  

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