Beijing, the Modern “Ghost Town”

by diane ling

Sacrifice of human rights haunts post-Olympic China

Ironically, the city which was teeming with life and excitement just six months ago can now be described with a single word: empty. Half of inner Beijing’s looming skyscrapers stand vacant, despite their imposing presence in the city skyline. Abandoned retail strips stand along streets half-completed. Stationary construction equipment waits for funds not likely to arrive anytime soon.

The desolate Beijing city center now creates the impression of a modern ghost town. Efforts to give the city an ultra-urbanized look have produced a rueful semblance of that effect. Those lifeless skyscrapers aren’t the majestic giants they were meant to be – they appear strangely absurd in a city which is home to 17 million people making on average $6,000 a year.

Something has clearly gone wrong. To find out what has happened, we need to start at the beginning – why China wanted to host the Olympics in the first place. In short, it was because the government wanted to gain international recognition of China as a modern, robust nation equal to any other world power.

To a great extent, this aim was fulfilled. The Beijing Olympics were a magnificent spectacle. And now, China is increasingly being seen as a global force to be reckoned with. In advance of her trip to China this February, Hillary Clinton called the US-China relationship “the world's most important of the 21st century.” Clinton discussed with Chinese leaders pressing world issues such as economic policies and global climate change. According to the BBC’s James Reynolds, Clinton’s trip indicates that “the US believes that it cannot solve any of these problems unless China is involved.” China is evidently gaining respect as a world leader. This effect surely arose in part from the amazing hosting of the 2008 Games.

That is not to say China got through the Olympics without any mistakes. The Games came at a great cost to the land and population – in the form of excessive commercialization and numerous human rights infringements. Although these acts were performed amidst a lavish attempt to uplift China’s image, they have actually tarnished that image to a great degree.

In the two years preceding the Games, 500 million square feet of commercial real estate was developed in Beijing. But economically, it was a disaster. Today, an estimated 100 million square feet of that space is empty. Jack Rodman, an expert in distressed real estate, told the L.A. Times that this unprecedented scale of development “just doesn't make sense." Sadly, these unused and unneeded scrapers sacrifice practicality for photogenic appeal. They may look beautiful, but what will happen when there is nobody to pay the rent?

The redevelopment of Beijing also came at the cost of the livelihood of many local people. An estimated 1.5 million Chinese residents were forcibly evicted from their homes so that the land could be used for development of highways, subways, and skyscrapers. [1] Often, little or no compensation was offered. There was also the controversial removal of hundreds of thousands of beggars, political dissidents, and other “undesirables” from the streets – all done to present an immaculately clean city for foreign visitors.

The tragic stories of these people cannot be overlooked in analyzing the 2008 Games. They painfully detract from the great image of China that the government had strived to create. The cost in human livelihoods surpasses that of any financial wastage. It is ironic that this great human sacrifice was performed all in the name of image. If image was the key, China should have refrained from committing such outright violations of human rights. Because it did not, to this day the country is regarded with suspicion over human rights issues.

As far as China’s leaders are concerned, the Olympics were a success because they amplified China’s presence on the world stage. However, the careless sacrifice of a city’s economic health, environment, and people – all in the name of image and pride – was not impressive at all. And it did not go unnoticed by the world.

I strongly support the Chinese government’s wish to glorify the nation and the Chinese people. It just took the wrong approach.

The uncontrolled rate of construction in Beijing reflected unsound city planning. Perhaps those few extra millions of square feet in office space highlighted Beijing’s recent economic rise to power, but it was unnecessary to go to such wasteful extremes. China definitely could have managed the city’s finances and commercialization more responsibly.

It was even more foolish to engage in overt violations of human rights. Unfortunately, the Olympics saw but a few among a string of China’s human rights offenses. If human rights had been adequately respected during the Olympics, China could have redeemed itself for some of its past infractions. Instead, China has only reinforced its reputation for disregarding human rights. The negative attention consequently drawn by the media does not help China’s world image at all. Even worse, China’s efforts to put on a great Olympics will have been counterproductive if the Games are mainly remembered as a cause of innumerable human rights violations. It is especially ironic that these infringements came about through China’s efforts to polish its image, but that now they have created the opposite effect.

The attention garnered by the Olympics has created a better understanding of modern China: a powerful nation, but not without its imperfections. Its human rights encroachments are currently the biggest slur on its world image. To change this, China can start by re-thinking its stances on the nation’s current human rights issues. This would be a big step toward repairing its negative human rights track record. Possibilities for change include its policy against Tibet protesters, freedom of expression, detainment and torture of political dissidents, and the harsh death penalty.

As for Beijing’s ghost town, the damage is done, but China can learn from this mistake. The main blame lies in lack of government supervision of the real estate industry. China needs to work on tightening its laws to reduce abuse of the legal system, as well as take an active role in effective city planning. Only then can China be seen as a nation that responsibly handles its own finances and future.

We must realize that as Asian Americans, a positive image of China can be uplifting to Asian Americans. After all, our heritage lies in Asia, and the success of China really empowers the Asian identity. China’s rise ultimately proves that an Asian nation can become a global power on par with the rest of the developed world.

As a Chinese American I will always be proud of China as a nation with an incredibly rich history and culture. However, as an individual with a conscience, I truly regret its leaders’ continual and blatant disregard for human rights. China needs to work diligently and seriously in the coming years to fix the plethora of legal and social problems it faces. I hope that as a result, China will one day be known not just as a powerful nation, but as a responsible world leader that effectively enforces just laws, values the environment, and most of all, respects basic human rights.