With one month to go before the Olympics open on Aug. 8, China’s work is hardly complete.
The government needs to meet its pledge to deliver clean air in one of the world’s most polluted cities, and must finish two new subway lines and a railway line. The 31 venues in Beijing are ready, and most have been for months.
But the most difficult promise to keep for the authoritarian government may be allowing reporters — as many as 30,000 are expected — to work freely as they have in other Olympics. This was a pledge China made seven years ago in winning the bid.
Television networks like NBC — it has paid billions for Olympic broadcast rights — and the International Olympic Committee have been at odds for months with Chinese security officials, fighting to clarify the rights of satellite trucks to move freely around the city of 17 million.
Access to spots like Tiananmen Square — who will be allowed in, when and under what conditions — is also a battleground with Chinese officials fearing the iconic sites could be used as a TV backdrop by pro-Tibet protesters or the spiritual movement Falun Gong.
This issue should come to a head again this week when broadcasters, the IOC and games organizers meet Wednesday in Beijing. This is a follow-up to a contentious meeting in late May when IOC and broadcast officials criticized Beijing organizers for bureaucratic delays that could compromise TV coverage.
“I think this free reporting will be a problem for everyone,” said Johannes Hano, East Asia bureau chief of Germany’s ZDF television. “They will stop you even if you have permission. It will be the biggest problem. There is no freedom of press as they promised.”
One of two rights-holding broadcasters for the games in Germany, Hano said ZDF was sending a “sharp protest letter” to IOC president Jacques Rogge, Beijing organizers, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the European Broadcasting Union.
“We are worried this situation will continue and freedom of journalists will not be guaranteed here,” Hano said.
Beijing Olympic organizing officials have repeatedly promised that reporters will be free to do their jobs and cover the Olympics as they have at previous games.
“During the Olympic Games we will help the media with their interview requests,” organizing committee spokesman Sun Weide said Monday.
China is on the record promising unrestricted coverage. In a 273-page guide to coverage for the foreign press, the introduction says: “The Chinese government will honor its commitments in the bid process ... to provide quality and convenient services to the media in accordance with international practice and the successful experience from previous games, so as to satisfy the demands of the media covering the Olympic Games in China.”
Rocked by protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay following the outbreak of deadly rioting March 14 in Tibet, China has stepped up security everywhere and tightened visa rules. Even holders of Olympic tickets are finding this is no guarantee of a visa to stay in China.
Chinese officials say terrorism is the biggest threat to the games, although human-rights groups say the threat is being used to dampen internal dissent.
The Free Tibet Campaign has asked British athletes to make a “T for Tibet” sign during the games. It is also making “Free Tibet” T-shirts available. Similar campaigns are under way in other countries.
President Bush on Sunday said he will attend the opening ceremony. Japanese Primer Minister Yasuo Fukuda is also coming. However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has tied his attendance to progress in talks between Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.
China says it will deploy about 100,000 anti-terrorism police during the games, with some of the city’s 500,000 Olympic volunteers also serving security roles. Police have already begun bag checks in Beijing’s subway stations, leading some to dub these the “Killjoy Games.”
A blunt reminder of security is visible just a half mile from the Bird’s Nest National Stadium, where two ground-to-air missiles are pointed skyward.
Beijing’s gray-tinted air is expected to begin clearing this month as strict, two-month pollution controls come into force July 20. Factories and heavy industry in several provinces around Beijing will be shuttered, and up to 2 million vehicles will be taken off the roads using an even-odd plate registration system.
In Qingdao, the venue for sailing 350 miles from Beijing, thousands are working to clear an algae bloom that covers one third of the sea area where the competition begins Aug. 9. The bloom may be caused by pollution, a persistent problem along the highly industrialized east coast of China.
Rogge, the IOC president has said some outdoor endurance events lasting more than an hour will be postponed if the air quality is poor. He has yet to comment publicly on the water quality in Qingdao.