Gasping and grimacing, Sun Yining struggled to lift the iron bar above her head. At 12, she is a head and a half taller and twice as sturdy as most Chinese girls her age. A star pupil at the Fushan Sports School in the coastal town of Yantai, she has set herself a goal: to win a gold medal in weightlifting at the next Olympics.
Sun’s coach, Zhang Jianmei, proudly showed photographs of an illustrious former student, Tang Gong Hong, who won gold for China in the women’s weightlifting at the Athens Games.
“The spirit of sports is all about being higher, faster, better,” she said. “We made it.”
“I want the same,” said Sun. “I want to be a champion.”
The Chinese government hopes that hosting the Olympics will enable the whole nation to share such glory. At Athens, the US won 36 gold medals, China 32. In the new sporting Cold War, the Chinese are determined to triumph on their home territory. Seven years ago, the State General Administration of Sport started “Project 119”, which identified 119 golds – now 122 – going begging in athletics and swimming and other water sports. The strategy involved concentrating on disciplines with many categories, therefore many medals.
Canoeing, with 16 gold medals in Beijing, was one. The Chinese recruited a German coach, Joseph Capousek, under whose tuition Germany had won 18 Olympic golds for canoeing and kayaking in four Olympics.
In June, Capousek was sacked as Chinese team coach, allegedly because he was not getting good enough results. He believes he fell out with the sports officials partly because he criticised their obsession with winning, saying it was counterproductive, as it put too much pressure on athletes.
“For China, to win gold is political, it’s very important,” he said. “Everybody talks about gold in China. If you win bronze or silver, you are a loser.” After he lost his job, he discovered that while the German version of his contract said he should aim to win gold, the Chinese-language version said he was obliged to do so.
If China beats the US in the medals table, Chinese officials will feel that history has finally vindicated them. “We know people will use the Olympics as an opportunity to humiliate China,” said a senior diplomat. “Previously, the western media could humiliate China without Chinese people knowing, but now, because of the internet and TV, they know.”
To outsiders, the idea that reporters will be running around Olympic venues seeking out opportunities to humiliate the hosts may seem absurd. But many Chinese share the government view that China was humiliated for centuries, from the Opium Wars when Britain seized Hong Kong, to the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, and on through decades of poverty and isolation. The Olympics marks the moment to prove that those days are over.
“We have to have a good Olympics,” said Wang Qishan, then mayor of Beijing, last year. “Otherwise not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors.” Such hyperbole has become normal. In this atheist nation, the Olympic flame is now routinely described as “sacred”. Criticising the Olympics is therefore a form of sacrilege.
Yang Chunlin, a land rights activist who posted on the internet a letter entitled “We want human rights, not the Olympics”, was jailed earlier this year, along with others who might let foreigners see that China is a land of diverse ideals and competing interests, not a homogeneous society of 1.3 billion automatons, all blindly agreeing with the Communist Party leadership.
Fang Zheng would love to attend the Olympics, but he knows he would be unwise to try to come to Beijing. In the mid-1980s he dreamed of a career in sport. But on 4 June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, as he dived to save a female student, he was run over by a tank. Both his legs had to be amputated, one above the knee.
Still determined to be active, he learned to throw the discus and won two medals in the 1992 All-China Disabled Athletic Games. When he tried to compete internationally two years later, however, a sports ministry official told him he would not be allowed. The government was afraid that if he won, foreign journalists would ask how he lost his legs, and China would lose face. Now Fang keeps quiet, for fear of bringing more misfortune upon himself and his family.
“Of course, as a sports lover, I always wished that Beijing would host the Olympics,” he said, speaking from his wheelchair in Hefei, a charmless town in eastern China. “But now it seems that the Olympics is a question of nationalism. The Chinese government always objects to the politicisation of sport, but they are the ones who politicise it most.”
While critics say the government’s attitude proves that it should never have been awarded the Games, in practical ways the Chinese system is ideally suited. With no public debate, no budget constraints, no transparent tendering, no citizens’ groups challenging government decisions, and a large pool of migrant labour, the authorities have completed, on time, not only the 31 Olympic venues, but also three new subway lines and the largest airport terminal in the world.
“The readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail for these Games have set a gold standard for the future,” said Hein Verbruggen, head of a visiting International Olympic Committee delegation. “What our hosts have achieved is exceptional.”
Architecture correspondents write breathlessly about the grandeur of the huge new buildings that dominate the concrete and glass skyline, yet these tell us little about how China has changed. Rather, they represent the latest manifestation of its ability to realise extraordinary infrastructure projects, from the Great Wall to the Three Gorges Dam, and now the Bird’s Nest stadium. Most notable is the impact of globalisation: these new buildings are mainly designed by foreigners.
None of which negates the Olympics as an opportunity to celebrate China’s undeniable economic success. In 30 years of “reform and opening up”, hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. Most Chinese are hopeful, because they see their children will have a better life than theirs.
With 80 heads of state expected to attend the opening ceremony, the Olympics also symbolise the country’s new diplomatic reach and ability to influence events. China is criticised for vetoing sanctions against Zimbabwe and enabling the leadership of Sudan as it persecutes people in Darfur. According to the World Bank, however, it is also a major force for development, financing desperately needed infrastructure projects in Africa. Western unease is irrelevant – China must now be taken into account as the balance of world power alters.
Many Chinese, especially in Beijing, are excited and proud as they await the great day. The hurdler Liu Xiang and the basketball player Yao Ming are celebrities in the mould of David Beckham – great sportsmen now sought after for product endorsements as much as for their physical prowess. For their fans, the Olympics will be an occasion to celebrate their idols not just as representatives of China, but also as individuals.
However, as businesses are forced to close for two months because of Olympic anti-pollution traffic measures, and police comb the city checking people’s hukou, their residency permits, others are asking if the Olympics are worth it.
A few weeks back, a small crowd gathered outside the home and nut stall of Yu Jinping. Her rickety old courtyard house at the edge of the hutongs, or alleyways, had been condemned as an “eyesore” along the torch relay route and was to be demolished. As a protest, she had festooned it with Communist Party flags and posters of great Communist leaders, past and present. “The district officials cheat and harm the people,” she said. “They encourage the people to be against the party and against the central government. Their illegal evictions are destroying the flag of the great party.”
Others were less patriotic in their objections.
“Is China the only country that’s ever hosted the Olympics?” grumbled a middle-aged man in a grubby white vest. “Other countries have hosted the Olympics, too. Did they all rob their own people?”
“This is all wrong,” agreed another.
These are ordinary people who – like “Mrs Brave”, about whom Yiyun Li writes on page 28 – are not willing to be used as props in a piece of theatre staged by the government. But propaganda is an integral part of the Chinese system. South of Yu Jinping’s house, the historic neighbourhood of Qianmen has been razed, the hutongs to be replaced by shopping malls and expensive residences, newly built to look as if they were old. A wall with an artist’s impression of hutongs and flowers blocks the view of rubble. Genuine history is being replaced by a sanitised, safe facade.
As Ma Jian explains (page 24), a similar wall has been erected to shield modern Chinese from the more painful events in their recent past. The opening ceremony for the Olympics, details of which remain secret, will undoubtedly show something of China’s epic history, in which dragons and heroic leaders are more likely to figure than tanks and students. The technocrats in charge of the Games stand in an unbroken line of Communist apparatchiks who believe that remembering the party’s mistakes will lead to instability, not healing.
Other gaps loom even larger. The Cultural Revolution, during which millions were imprisoned and tortured, is still a taboo subject. In his new book, Tombstone, the 67-year-old journalist Yang Jisheng chronicles in painful detail the Great Famine of 1959-61, which was caused by Mao’s agricultural policies during the Great Leap Forward. Using previously unpublished records, he establishes that 35 million people died, considerably more than in the First World War. The book, needless to say, is banned in China.
Afraid that foreigners may raise such sensitive topics, neighbourhood committees and work unit leaders have given Beijing residents “talking points”. A taxi driver recently explained that he had been told that if the fare in the back of his cab got chatty, he should stick to “the five goods”: Olympics are good, Communist Party is good, government is good, Beijing is good, taxi company is good.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera famously wrote: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” As long as the Chinese central government dictates what people may remember and discuss, it is hard to see these Olympics as a real break with the past.
Lindsey Hilsum is the China correspondent for Channel 4 News