How crooked Chinese officials have cashed in on the 2008 games
These landmarks are surrounded by hundreds of new high-rise towers providing modern working and living spaces. The towers reach northward for miles out of the city to a grandiose Olympic village, to be lit by solar-powered lamps, no less. The area includes a total of 31 sports stadiums that are already more or less finished.
The centerpiece is a 91,000-seat National Stadium, constructed from an elaborate web of high-tech steel beams. These "interwoven twigs" earned the $400 million-plus structure the nickname "Bird's Nest." It will be the main venue for track and field competitions and the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, organized by Zhang Yimou, the Chinese movie director, and American film director Steven Spielberg (who has threatened to pull out as a protest against China's support for Sudan in the Darfur conflict).
Beijing is hoping to stage an Olympics that matches the nation's impressive rise to economic superpower status. After centuries during which China was focused inward, the games are something of a coming-out party, similar to Tokyo's postwar re-emergence with the 1964 games. Young Chinese, in particular, see this as a pivotal event. Zhang Yue, a 26-year-old computer engineer, says: "China is keen to show herself to the world. Though there are other opportunities, the Olympics is the best and is the one that suits China most. It's big-scaled, and it's noisy. It will draw a lot of attention."
And yet, despite Beijing's impressive efforts, the flaws are hard to overlook. New city plazas frequently flood in downpours, new highways are potholed within months, and new buildings show cracks in load-bearing walls. Much of the construction work of the past few years has been shoddy.
In March, six workers were killed in the collapse of a tunnel for the new No. 10 subway line, which connects to the Olympic village. Some outspoken officials say the cause of the accident was covered up. Authorities blamed misjudgment about soil conditions, but most likely it was due to inferior construction standards. Robert Broadfoot, a Hong Kong-based analyst, told news agencies at the time: "This highlights a huge problem of transparency. Right since the very beginning, you have had precious little transparency attached to the Beijing Olympics. The coverup of the tunnel collapse is not a surprise given that history."
Construction workers in Beijing report systematic disregard for safety regulations. To meet tight deadlines, their bosses often add chemicals to the concrete mix that make it set faster. Unfortunately, they also make it more brittle. Former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji has spoken of "tofu construction," since the resulting walls have the strength of bean curd.
Guang Xin, a 44-year-old former farmer who came to Beijing two years ago, earns an "OK salary" of $60 a month as a construction worker at the Olympic village. His face is covered with tiny specks of cement, and his muscled forearms show cuts and bruises sustained during building work. During a break from his 12-hour shift, he shows several brick walls he has helped to erect near the Bird's Nest. But much of the surrounding area is concrete, and Guang, who built his own brick home in the countryside, is not impressed. "See this? It already looks old," he says. "Nobody from a foreign country has even been here yet." With a mix of frustration and fear, he points out that there are cracks and fissures evident long before the first Olympics spectators arrive. "What happens when the world finds out our stadiums are fakes?"