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Olympic Fever
As excitement builds in Beijing for the Summer Games, China faces heated criticism for its policies

Li Xiang in front of the Beijing National Stadium, also known as "The Bird's Nest."
(Photo: David G. McIntyre/Black Star)
An excerpt from Junior Scholastic, April 28, 2008

Li Xiang (lee shong), 12, hates track practice on the smoggiest days in Beijing. On such days, a soupy haze hangs over China's capital. But Xiang has to run even if the smog nauseates her. (The Chinese write their family name first.)

"When it's smoggy, when the sky is dark, I can't breathe well," Xiang tells JS. "I like to run when the sky is blue."

Smog is an inescapable part of life in this city of 12 million people. Nonetheless, in August, China's capital will host the Olympic Games for the first time. To prepare, Beijing has been building and "greening" for the past few years. Local officials say they have planted 2 million trees. The city has added flashy architecture and new subway lines. People are scolded to mind their manners. There is a %7 fine for spitting in public.

Indeed, each day Xiang is reminded of the Games. On the way to school, she sees Olympic-themed billboards. At school, her class is divided into five study groups, one for each Olympic ring. She has toy replicas of the five mascots of the Chinese Games. And everywhere she goes, Xiang sees the hopeful slogan that the Chinese have given to the Beijing Games: One World, One Dream.

"Genocide Olympics"

Yet people the world over are alarmed at China's repressive policies. International leaders such as Prince Charles of Great Britain are boycotting the Olympics to protest China's continuing occupation of Tibet (see p. 4). Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, also says that she will not attend the Games.

Others point to China's alliance with Sudan. Armies supported by the Sudanese government have terrorized the tribal people of its Darfur region, killing at least 200,000 and driving 2.5 million others from their homes. Still, China supplies the African nation with arms and buys two thirds of the oil that Sudan exports.

That is why activists have coined the term "Genocide Olympics" to describe the upcoming Beijing Games. Recently, a distinguished group, including Nobel Peace Prize winners, condemned China's support for Sudan in a public letter of protest to its President, Hu Jintao (hoo jin-taow).

In response, the Chinese government said it would contribute %13 million in aid to Darfur. But that did not stop American film director Steven Spielberg from resigning as artistic adviser for the Games' opening and closing ceremonies.

Blocking Freedom

The International Olympic Committee named Beijing the 2008 Summer Games host city back in July 2001. Xiang remembers the day well. She and her mother screamed with excitement. About 200,000 Beijingers poured into the streets to celebrate.

Since then, China's economy has grown rapidly. People around the world hoped that economic development would lead to democratization of the government. The Communist Party, which has historically limited the freedoms of its citizens, has ruled China since 1949.

Many observers say that civil rights have not improved despite economic growth. The government censors news and blocks Web pages that discuss Tibet, human rights, and other sensitive topics. A French group called Reporters Without Borders says that 80 Chinese journalists and bloggers are in prison for criticizing the government.

Beijing's construction boom has caused other problems. Thousands of people were displaced so that China could build facilities for the Games. Thousands of others, who have come from the poorer parts of China to work as laborers, live in horrible conditions.

But most Chinese don't know of these things or talk openly about them. "Human rights?" Xiang says. "I've seen this word, but I don't know what it means." Same with the genocide in Darfur: "I've heard of Sudan, but I've never heard of the war in Sudan."

Gaining and Losing Face

"Hosting the Olympics is an honor," Liu Meng Ting, 15, tells JS. "It means that China has reached a certain level of qualification." Ting likes some of the changes the Games have brought to her city, but not all. "People are becoming more friendly," she says. "But there are too many people and too many cars."

Twelve-year-old Jiao Ju (jee-ow joo) agrees that Beijing should be proud to host the Olympics. "Previously, the economy wasn't good enough," he tells JS. "Now China is rich enough to host the Olympics, to build the stadiums, and to host foreigners."

But Ju and his friend Fu Le Wei (foo-luh-way), 11, are also concerned about the smog. Despite recent efforts, Beijing is one of the world's most-polluted cities. According to experts, its air pollution levels are three to four times as high as safety levels recommended by the World Health Organization. Olympic officials have threatened to delay endurance events such as the marathon if the smog is too thick. "The smog could mean China loses face [is embarrassed]," says Wei.

A United Family?

Despite all the criticism, Olympic fever has definitely struck China. Products featuring the 2008 mascots, called the "Friendlies" or Fuwa, are scattered throughout Wei's house. He has bought keychains, backpacks, books, and even a movie featuring the Fuwa.

Chinese newspapers report that 4,000 children have been named after the mascots. Many parents have even named their newborns Aoyun (ow-yoon), the Chinese word for Olympics. "The Olympics can show people how much China has developed," says Ju. "It's a great thing for international friendship."

Xiang is a little more skeptical about China's place in the world. "There are two kinds of people," she says. "To some, it doesn't matter whether their country does good or bad. They blindly say it's good. There are others who say, 'Let other countries and other people say how we could improve and help us become even better.'"

"We are all on Earth," Xiang says. "We're all family members."

by April Rabkin in Beijing