Paying a high price for the Games

April 25, 2008

Bob Quellos explains that China's Olympics project rests on exploitation and oppression.

THE CHINESE government hopes to crush Tibetan resistance in time to mount a successful PR campaign for the Olympic Games this summer. But there's even more repression and exploitation behind the 31 gleaming new Olympic venues built to impress the world.

Construction surrounding the Olympics has produced untold hardship for many of Beijing's residents. The new Olympic stadiums and arenas--as well as the addition of an equal number of new roads--has led to the displacement of more than 1.25 million people.

Construction is further stressing the city's already polluted air, leading the Chinese Environmental Protection Bureau to call for a shutdown of all construction sites, cement factories and concrete mixing plants three weeks prior to the Games to ensure better air quality for the athletes.

Housing displacement isn't limited to Beijing. With water usage in the capital expected to spike 30 percent during the Games, the government forced more than 20,000 people to move to make way for a canal that will divert water from Hebei province to drought-prone Beijing.

What else to read

The Human Rights Watch report on China's migrant construction workers, "'One Year of My Blood': Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in Beijing," is available at the group's Web site.

For a detailed examination of the conflict over Tibet and the Chinese government's crackdown, see David Whitehouse's "The struggle over the future of Tibet" in the International Socialist Review.

For more on the scandalous history of the Olympic Games, look for Dave Zirin's Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. Dave's writings are featured at his Edge of Sports Web site.

Known as the South to North Water Transfer Project, the canal has already dried out local wells and left farmers with dry land. One Chinese official called for compensation for the millions of people affected by the canal, while warning of the possibility of "social upheaval and environmental harm."

Meanwhile, accelerated work on the massive Olympics-related construction projects has had deadly results. The most celebrated new structure is the $500 million National Stadium, built over an accelerated four-year period. Known as the Bird's Nest, the structure claimed the lives of at least 10 workers--something the Chinese government has tried to cover up.

According to a report in London's Sunday Times, after deaths on the job site, "bodies were swiftly removed by police, who sealed off accident scenes with orange tape and cleared other workers from the area while the dead were loaded into police vehicles."

Beijing's million-strong construction workforce is made up mostly of migrants from the countryside. These workers have limited ability to obtain social welfare benefits because of China's "hukou" system of residency registration, designed to limit the flow of rural residents to cities.

According to Human Rights Watch, "Migrant construction workers building the 'new Beijing' are routinely exploited by being denied proper wages, under dangerous conditions, with neither accident insurance nor access to medical and other social services."

The group's report quotes one migrant worker: "[We] workers ended up with less than 20 yuan ($2.67) per day, and on top of that, we'd be deducted eight yuan ($1.07) per day for living costs. How are workers supposed to survive?"

Workers who protest these conditions are often met with violence. "In July 2007," according to Human Rights Watch, "hoodlums hired as strikebreakers murdered a migrant construction worker at a building site in Guangdong province where the striking workers had remained unpaid for months."

AS IN previous Games, when the Olympics come to a close, the mark left on Beijing may not be as glamorous as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would have us believe.

U.S. News & World Report found that many of Beijing's new plazas "frequently flood in downpours, new highways are potholed within months, and buildings show cracks in load-bearing walls. Much of the construction work of the past few years has been shoddy."

Workers often refer to the concrete walls being poured as "tofu construction," due to their weak strength as a result of mixes used to speed up construction.

And when it comes to housing, the Olympics will leave the residents of Beijing worse off. According to the Center on Housing and Evictions, over 2 million people have been evicted over the last 20 years solely because of the Olympic Games, from Atlanta to Seoul. Beijing will be no different.

Little, however, should be expected with regard to human rights concerns from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which includes wealthy business executives, politicians and aristocrats like Princess Anne of Britain, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, Prince Albert of Monaco and Princess Nora of Lichtenstein.

The IOC's standard for human rights was set in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Just 10 days before they started, the Mexican government cracked down on student protesters, with police killing as many as 500 young people. Afterward, the IOC met behind closed doors to vote that the Games should continue anyway, with assurances from the Mexican government that the event would be peaceful.

Despite the mounting death toll of Tibetan protesters and the victimization of Chinese workers and the poor, the IOC can be expected to show the same regard for human life in Beijing.

Further Reading

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