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Earthquake Recovery Tempers China’s Olympics Elation

May 26, 2008 at 10:01 AM EST
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In preparing for the Olympic Games, the Chinese government has faced unexpected challenges, including a devastating earthquake and protests over its rule of Tibet. Margaret Warner reports from China about the quake's impacts on the Beijing Olympic plans.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, pride and sorrow in China. Margaret Warner begins a week of reports from there.

MARGARET WARNER: On Saturday morning, just 10 weeks before the Beijing Olympic Games, China’s top athletes were testing the track at their brand-new stadium.

It’s called the Bird’s Nest, a 91,000-seat behemoth of twisted concrete and steel, a stunning symbol of the new Beijing.

Filling the stands to cheer on the athletes: thousands of excited Chinese spectators. Yet just across town, other Beijing residents spent their weekend collecting donated food and clothing, toiletry and toys to send to the victims of the China’s shattering earthquake two weeks ago.

The disaster has left some 5 million homeless and in desperate need of whatever their government or countrymen can provide.

The two weekend gatherings in Beijing typify the conflicting emotions Chinese people feel as they approach what they’d hoped would be a glorious celebration of China’s arrival as a modern country on the world stage.

Beijing has spent six years and billions of dollars to remake the city, turning back alleys and traditional communal neighborhoods into multimillion-dollar high-rises.

The dramatic overhaul has brought redesigned roadways, five new subway lines, thousands of new plants, and architectural wonders, like an eco-friendly bubble-wrap aquatic center.

Amidst the splendor of the Forbidden City, seat of China’s long and proud imperial past, Culture Minister Cai Wu says hosting the Olympics will demonstrate to the world that China has transcended a century of foreign invasion and humiliation and political and economic turmoil that kept it a backward nation.

CAI WU, Minister of Culture, China (through translator): China is not seeking to rebuild a glorious past like some people thought. Instead, China is wishing to have a desirable modernization, just like other nations of the world.

The Olympics is very important, because China can show to the world not only our ancient culture and civilizations, but also how much we now share the same common aspiration to build a better world with all other people of the world.

Quake put spotlight on China's poor

Ma Lian Fu
Beijing Hutong Resident
Because of the poetic spirit of this slogan, they started to tear down the old Beijing. They started to tear down peoples' old houses. In my opinion, it should have been "Old Beijing, New Olympics."

MARGARET WARNER: But common aspirations isn't what the rest of the world saw when riots broke out in March in China's autonomous region of Tibet. The Chinese government's Tibet crackdown and refusal to allow free media coverage there sparked an international outcry.

Protestors disrupted the Chinese-led Olympic torch relay in Paris, London, and elsewhere. Some European leaders said they'd boycott the games' opening ceremonies.

It was in this sour atmosphere that the Sichuan earthquake struck, devastating a poor mountainous province 1,000 miles inland from Beijing. The death and destruction were almost beyond belief.

Yet the government's rapid response, and its unprecedented media openness, won international sympathy and an outpouring of support at home.

CAI WU (through translator): This has corrected the misunderstanding of many Western people who used to believe that Chinese people do not respect human rights or have no sense of sympathy. I think after this earthquake the Western perception, the foreign perception in general of China has changed for the better.

MARGARET WARNER: The most profound impact of the quake, however, is that it dramatized for Chinese and the world the tremendous gap that economic liberalization has created in this country of 1.3 billion.

Television coverage of the quake showed vividly that there are literally hundreds of millions of Chinese still eking out a primitive existence in the rural areas. Improving their lot was the goal of the market liberalization launched by China's communist government 30 years ago.

While market reforms created hundreds of millions of new jobs, the transformation has at times been brutal. Here in Beijing, two-thirds of the city's hutong neighborhoods of low courtyard houses have been demolished in a bid to modernize and sanitize city housing.

Residents were offered compensation and ordered to move elsewhere, even if, like Ma Lian Fu, they are too old to start over or aspire to a white-collar job.

His family has lived in a hutong just south of Tiananmen Square for more than 50 years; now, government posters on alley walls telling residents they have two months left to move. Ma blames the Olympics for his plight.

MA LIAN FU, Beijing Hutong Resident (through translator): They issued a slogan saying, "New Beijing, New Olympics." Because of the poetic spirit of this slogan, they started to tear down the old Beijing. They started to tear down peoples' old houses. In my opinion, it should have been "Old Beijing, New Olympics."

MARGARET WARNER: Ma has filed hundreds of petitions to protest the demolition, but he believes that poor people like him are powerless in the new China.

MA LIAN FU (through translator): And now they want to tear down my place. I have said, "I'm not going to go, even if I have to die. And even if I do have to die, I'll die here."

'National trauma' transcends class

Zhang Qian
Media Company Consultant
Most of us are the only child in the family, and we don't usually care about others. But this time, most of us realized that we should care about others in the same society, especially those who suffer.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet China's economic transformation is also a success story. Since the late 1970s, some 200 million to 300 million have moved from rural poverty into the urban middle class.

Olympic visitors to the new Beijing will find it filled with the newly rich and legions of first-generation middle-class.

Among them is Jing Liu, whose friends thought he was crazy when he started his own advertising design company in Beijing 11 years ago. He now employs 10 people. His firm counts big multinationals as clients and more recently tapped into lucrative Olympics-related contracts from state-owned enterprises.

JING LIU, Businessman: This is my penthouse.

MARGARET WARNER: At 37, Jing is living the good life. He and his wife own their own apartment and travel overseas to ski. Jing believes the sky is the limit for his generation.

JING LIU: I'm not the only one thinking this way. Like, all my friends, almost, all think this way. You know, when you're with this kind of group, charging forward, you don't think you're going to lose.

MARGARET WARNER: The national trauma of the earthquake has helped pull China's rising urban class and its rural poor together. Many newly middle-class Chinese have been profoundly touched by the tragedy.

At this trendy party to launch a new television show on style, several 20-somethings, originally from small towns, said the earthquake had made them appreciate for the first time the deprivation their parents' generation had gone through.

ZHANG QIAN, Media Company Assistant: Most of us are the only child in the family, and we don't usually care about others. But this time, most of us realized that we should care about others in the same society, especially those who suffer.

MARGARET WARNER: That same spirit motivated the groups of co-workers, hobby club members, and Internet chat room friends to gather at the Beijing cargo railway station on Sunday to bring their own donated goods or help others get loaded.

Among them was 25-year-old Wang Rui, a young Beijing journalist.

WANG RUI, Beijing Journalist: We wanted to do something more for the Sichuan people because we are all the Chinese.

MARGARET WARNER: Initially, the tragedy cast a shadow over the coming Olympics for her, sparking an Internet debate about whether the torch relay should continue, but not for long.

WANG RUI: We think that it's part of us. And the Olympics should do it as planned, as the plan. So we just know that it's -- so, one, the torch relay is in some city, we just to all the people to say that the Sichuan, come on.

Public doubt of official promises

Sun Weide
Beijing Olympic Committee
We have been preparing, Beijing, when it begins, for more than six years. And so I believe we have achieved tremendous progress on a whole range of important fronts, like the brand-new construction.

MARGARET WARNER: So can the Chinese government meet both challenges at once, pull off the Olympics without a hitch and satisfy the desperate needs of the millions now suffering in Sichuan, plus, throughout it all, maintain the political goodwill it currently enjoys among the Chinese people?

Sun Weide, official spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Committee, insists the Chinese government can do it all.

SUN WEIDE, Beijing Olympic Committee: We have been preparing, Beijing, when it begins, for more than six years. And so I believe we have achieved tremendous progress on a whole range of important fronts, like the brand-new construction.

Also, we've made tremendous progress in terms of traffic management, in terms of air quality control. So I believe that we are ready for a successful Olympic Games.

MARGARET WARNER: To respond to the public's sensitivities, the Olympic torch relay has been reshaped into an occasion for the Chinese to express their sympathy for the quake victims, while still celebrating the games.

Yet the news from the quake zone gets worse by the day. The death toll keeps rising beyond official estimates. Despite the massive relief effort, tents are in short supply.

And most ominously for the government, there are signs of unrest. In Deyang village in Sichuan last week, thousands of villagers protested outside a shop suspected of selling donated aid supplies. When police came to the scene, some in the crowd attacked the police car, as well.

There are also rising demands for heads to roll if government corruption or incompetence was to blame for the shoddy construction of so many collapsed schools.

Back in Beijing, sales agent Hong Jun brought his 12-year-old son to the railway station to help load relief supplies. He says managing the post-quake situation in Sichuan will be a monumental task for the government.

HONG JUN, Sales Agent (through translator): I myself am not very optimistic. When the earthquake happened, people went in and saved lives.

After that, it's about how to resettle people. And that really requires the government to be very capable of organizing and managing everything. For the long term, it's about how to make those places better; that's a very high requirement.

MARGARET WARNER: So amidst the excitement over the coming Olympics looms a giant challenge for the Chinese government. After the roller-coaster year China has had, anything could happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret will file more reports from China later this week. You can follow her trip and read about China's preparations for the Olympics and earthquake recovery efforts on our Web site. Go to PBS.org and scroll down to the area marked Online NewsHour Reports.