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The Totalitarian Olympics

Since the awarding of the Olympics to China in July 2001, no major world city has changed more than Beijing, with its massive new construction of roads, bridges, terminals, hotels, and other facilities promised for the Games. According to official estimates, the Chinese government will spend $37 billion to get ready for next August. That is almost four times what Athens disbursed for its summer Olympics, which was by far the most expensive ever staged. Yet the 2008 Games may end up costing China over $100 billion, after taking into account the relentless building and “beautification” campaigns currently demolishing “illegal urban villages.”

Last week, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions issued a report claiming that 1.25 million Chinese citizens have been displaced from their homes in advance of the 2008 Olympics. Another quarter million or so will be forcibly moved between now and the opening ceremony. All told, an estimated 512,100 households and 1,483,300 people in Beijing will be affected. Some have received no notice of eviction and others no compensation.

China has denied the accusations. “The report is sheer groundless [sic],” said Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman. According to her, every relocated person received compensation and no one was forced to leave Beijing. The government maintains that only 6,037 households have been resettled since 2002.

But the forced relocation of residents is just one small part of the story. The most disturbing aspect of China’s preparation for the Games is its employment of mass-mobilization techniques and strict social controls—the essential tools of totalitarian governance. Some of the government’s efforts resemble Singapore-style silliness—forcing school children to cheer for other nations’ teams, prohibiting cab drivers from dyeing their hair red or wearing big earrings, and banning sarcasm in shops. The capital’s municipal government has even divided the city into five areas and decreed that each section be repainted in a uniform hue.

Other measures are less trivial. Beggars will be evicted ahead of Olympiad XXIX. About a million cars will be forced off the road during the Games to clean the air, and heavy industry will be shut down for months beforehand for the same purpose. Worst of all, during this politically sensitive period, the Communist party has launched a severe crackdown. Over the past four years, there has been a marked deterioration of human rights and a virtual halt to political liberalization.

The awarding of the Olympics to China was supposed to speed up the liberalization of Chinese society. Perhaps one day we will see that it did. But so far, the government has only become more repressive. Just ask the million-and-a-half Chinese being forced from their homes.


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