Have the Games changed China?

BBC,Rupert Wingfield-Hayes 06/08/08

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes lived and worked in China for eight years from 1998-2006. Ahead of the Olympics he returned to Beijing to assess whether they have really changed anything and why they are so important for China.

For years people with grievances have come to Beijing to petition for justice

It is difficult to come back to China without being impressed.

When I left two years ago Beijing was in the middle of the biggest construction boom since the building of the Great Wall. The city was a mess, construction cranes littered the skyline, everything was happening, but nothing was finished.

Now it is, and it is pretty spectacular. On a clear day Beijing's skyline is dotted with some of the most exotic architecture anywhere. It is a modern mega-city to welcome the world to the Olympics.

But one thing that has not changed is the Chinese government's ability to shoot itself in the foot. So eager is it to make sure everything is perfect that it is trying to hide everything that is not.

Take the example of the petitioners' village in Beijing. It is not a village at all, but an old run-down neighbourhood of low-rise houses near Beijing South Railway Station. When I knew it a few years ago it was home to thousands of so-called petitioners.

They are a tragic bunch. Unable to get justice in their home provinces, they come to Beijing to petition the central government for help. Many stay for years, even decades in the hope of having their cases heard.

Last week I went back to the petitioners' village. It is gone. The bulldozers are clearing away the last remnants of the old houses. Still, a few hundred petitioners cling on, sleeping rough on the streets.

Within minutes I was surrounded by a crowd desperate to tell me their stories. It began at the end of last year, they told me. The police came and started rounding up people and taking them away.

Many were forcibly sent back to their home provinces. Those that remain play a game of cat and mouse with the police.

It is because of the Olympics, they said, that the authorities think we petitioners are an "unstable social element". They do not want people like us around in the capital during the Games.

In the eight years I worked in China as a television journalist there was one golden rule of doing stories. Do not get caught by the police. If you did you would end up spending hours in the local police station. More importantly you would lose your video tapes. No pictures, no story.

But ahead of the Olympics all that is supposed to have changed. Foreign journalists are now free to roam China (with the notable exception of Tibet) without permission and without a government minder.

This is possibly the most significant liberalisation on reporting in China since the 1949 revolution. I was naturally keen to test it out.

Just outside the city of Guangzhou in southern China there is a village called Taishi. Like so much of the countryside around Guangzhou, Taishi is being eaten up by the city, its fields sold for a new industrial zone.

Three years ago the villagers rebelled, launching mass protests. They said their land had been sold without their permission. I had tried to come here then, but was unable to get in. I was warned off by local activists, who said I risked being beaten up by thugs hired by the local government.

This time I had the law on my side, so I drove right in to the middle of Taishi and got out.

It took seconds for the police arrive. They wanted to see my permission to be there. I pulled out a copy of the Olympic reporting regulations, which made it very clear I did not need any. All around me tough-looking young men were talking urgently into mobile phones.

It soon became apparent that they did not know what to do about me, so I decided to push on. With my cameraman Tony at my side, I headed off down main street to look for some locals.

The mood change was immediate. Official politeness now turned to hostility. A phalanx of young men with cropped hair followed me wherever I went. They never touched me directly. But whenever I tried to talk to the locals they moved in close, a look of menace in their eyes. The locals stared back, defiant but silent. They clearly knew what talking to a foreign journalist would bring.

Across China the Olympics are being embraced as a huge coming-out party. After a century of foreign colonisation, civil war and poverty, the Games are being promoted by the Communist Party as a celebration of China's return as a great world power, a modern and dynamic country.

Finding anybody who disagrees with that view is difficult. But they do exist. At his compound on the outskirts of Beijing I met Ai Weiwei. He is a softly-spoken bear of a man with a shaggy beard and a knowing twinkle in his eye.

Ai Weiwei is one of China's most famous and controversial modern artists. He is also the man who came up with the idea for Beijing's iconic Bird's Nest stadium. But he will not be attending the opening ceremony on Friday.

When I ask him why he does not smile. The Olympics are an empty event, he says, they don't carry any real message. They are just a government-controlled event. He never raises his voice, the gentle smile never leaves his lip. No totalitarian system can bring happiness to people, he says, not here, not anywhere.

Ai Weiwei is a voice in the wilderness. For most Chinese the arrival of the Olympics is a moment of huge national pride and excitement.

On a tourist street in the heart of old Beijing, Sun Diguo is performing his Olympic rap. He is quite a bizarre sight. His hair is shaved into the shape of the Olympic rings. His body is covered in more than 30 Olympic tattoos.

For the last year his home has been an old delivery bicycle which he has ridden all the way from his home province nearly 2,000km away on China's south-east coast.

Sun is perhaps China's most over-the-top Olympic fan. And some might think a little crazy. But for a poor boy from a remote province the Olympics are simply the biggest thing to happen in China in his lifetime, and he is determined to play his part.

For me this return to China has been a fascinating experience. Some of the change I have witnessed is real. The new freedom for foreign journalists to travel and report is perhaps the most obvious. Some will dismiss it as superficial. I do not agree.

But much else has not changed. The Chinese government's instinct for control is as strong as ever. Time and again the Communist Party leadership has called for sport and politics to be kept separate, while merrily treating the Olympics as a huge propaganda victory for themselves and their party.

But beyond the hype and the rhetoric there is genuine excitement here. The Games will be spectacular. They are a moment for China and its people to savour.