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Olympic Preparations Ripple Through China

July 25, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Beneath the surface of new structures and changing freedoms in China, the country has instituted broad initiatives ahead of its hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games. Scott Tong, China bureau chief for public radio's "Marketplace", talks about the run-up to the games.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The games begin in just two weeks, and China is preparing for both the athletic competition and the huge international spotlight that will accompany it.

Among the last-minute steps: reducing the number of cars on the road to ease gridlock and pollution; putting the finishing touches on huge new stadiums; promoting major Chinese athletes, such as Yao Ming; and training police to ensure security and, to an extent still unclear, to control the actions of crowds and protesters.

Watching all of this play out has been a former colleague of ours. Scott Tong was a producer here for many years. He’s now China bureau chief for the public radio program “Marketplace.”

And, Scott, it’s nice to welcome you here as a guest.

SCOTT TONG, China Bureau Chief, “Marketplace”: Nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So holding the Olympics is, you know, a huge thing for any country. Tell us, give us a feel, as you walk down the street, in what ways does it feel big in China?

SCOTT TONG: Well, even before you walk down the street, when you land at the airport in Beijing, you start sensing these structures, these new things that are being built and just being finished.

When you land at your gate and you go to the main terminal, there’s this rail connection, which is just about out of the “Jetsons.” It’s so modern, something I’ve never seen before. And then you walk into the main terminal and it’s the same thing. It’s glossy and shiny.

The changing face of Beijing

SCOTT TONG: And a lot of these glossy, shiny things have been popping up recently in Beijing. When you go on the streets and you pass -- we just saw a picture of the Bird's Nest, this stadium, and then there is the new national theater. So you feel it by a lot of these structures...

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean Beijing just looks different?

SCOTT TONG: It's undergone this urban facelift. The joke before about Beijing being in northern China was that you couldn't find much modern architecture; you couldn't get a good meal in Beijing. Well, that's really changed.

So you can feel it from things. And then when you talk to people on the street, the sense that this is really a significant moment for the image of China.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what way does it touch the lives of the proverbial man or woman on the street?

SCOTT TONG: Well, you know how we have, for some people, election fatigue in the U.S.? There's a little bit of Olympics fatigue across China. I mean, China has -- they won the Olympics years and years ago, so there's been this talking, and talking, and talking about this.

When you go into a cab, you hear the radio and they say, "Well, hello. Today is July 25, and there are 16 more days until the Olympics." And so you hear it, and you hear it, and you hear it, and you see the rings and the sponsors. The ads have been up for years or more.

So, in some sense, there's kind of, "Enough already." And then you add on top of that some of these interruptions to people's daily lives in Beijing. They've taken half of the private cars off the road. So on Monday, if your license place is odd, you get to drive. And Tuesday, if you're even, you get to drive. And so those people, their lives have obviously been disrupted.

Air quality remains an issue

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the stories you reported recently was about a whole industrial town that had largely been shut down. Again, this is going to the air quality issue, right?

SCOTT TONG: Well, that's right. If we think about these steel towns that used to exist in the U.S. and Europe, those have all kind of migrated to China. Well, the smokestacks have migrated to China, too. And so Beijing is ringed by a lot of these cities that are spewing the byproducts of steel or of cement.

So what happens is Beijing has tried a lot of things to clear the air for the Olympics. And one of them is telling the dirty factories in a lot of these cities to shut down for the Olympics, and so a lot of industries are kind of shut down right now.

When I went into this town, though, I tried to talk to some of these factories -- and, presumably, they were upset because their livelihoods were interrupted. So we called 42 steel mills. And 42 steel mills said, "No, thank you. We don't want to talk to you."

And the reason is this is the Olympics. And if you're not happy, this is not the time in China to talk out of school.

JEFFREY BROWN: They know that?

SCOTT TONG: They know, whenever a subject seems to be sensitive, and then you're a reporter from outside of China going in, kind of the instinct kicks in, and nobody ever says, "It's really cool to talk to a foreign reporter right around now." They're just kind of...

Journalists' freedom to interview

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's interesting, but generally speaking, in the time you've been there, you've had a fair amount of freedom for the kind of people or businesses you can talk to, but now you sense something different, a little bit more awareness of that spotlight that I mentioned?

SCOTT TONG: Well, legally, the rules have actually opened up for journalists, foreign journalists in China. A couple of years ago, you had to get permission from the local jurisdiction to go there and request to interview people. And now we can go, and so long as somebody says, "I'll talk to you," we're allowed to interview them.

So on paper, that's been relaxed, and that's resulted in a lot of good things for foreign journalists. But in reality, whenever a topic is seen as not so great for the image of China -- and people just tend to know that -- then the instinct kind of kicks in.

So that happened. Last year, there was an instance of slave labor. There was, of course, the Tibet incident and then the torch relay. And now we have the Olympics. And this is another one of those moments that everything has to go right and, "We don't want to talk to you right now, just in case something goes wrong."

China's tumultuous year

JEFFREY BROWN: And how is the government preparing for that? I mean, we hear now about various crackdowns. Can you see more of a kind of sense of security out there? Are they watching you more carefully? Are they watching foreigners come in? Are they watching their own people more carefully?

SCOTT TONG: I moved to China a year-and-a-half ago. And one of the first persons I talked to who kind of was my housing agent to help me find houses, she said, "You hardly ever see guns in China." And that's true. It's surprising to maybe a lot of North Americans that you just don't see it.

So it's free in a lot of ways on the surface. And now, if you go into certain parts of Beijing, you see soldiers with rifles over their shoulders. So there's that. And on the subways, there are bomb-sniffing dogs down in Shanghai, which is not the hub of the Olympics. So a lot of these new things are being set up, so there's the security apparatus.

As far as how are they going to deal with protests or something getting out of hand, that's kind of the bad-news scenario whoever you talk to. You have these combustible elements of 20,000 foreign journalists all trying to get some story there and TV cameras rolling and the sense from the central government that everything has to go right.

And then, if you kind of add on top of this some protestor or someone who wants to gain attention or to be obnoxious, then something could go wrong. And this has been a tumultuous year in China. So a lot of people...

JEFFREY BROWN: And after the earthquake, of course, we had this very -- at least the veneer of a more openness, but you're saying that's weighed -- or it's sort of it's that versus that old, more controlled China that we're more familiar with?

SCOTT TONG: A lot of people talk about confident China and fragile China, as a country and for individual people. My former intern used to say, 'Why doesn't China seem more confident? Why don't I seem more confident?'

And during the earthquake, that confidence came out. We opened ourselves to the world and we came together. And then, with a lot of the crackdowns, it seems like maybe the more fragile China is upon us. And during the Olympics, we'll have to see where that goes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Scott Tong from 'Marketplace,' it's nice to have you back here.

SCOTT TONG: Jeff, nice to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks.

JIM LEHRER: And you can ask Scott Tong about the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics on our Web site. Just go to PBS.org.