China's Olympic year of celebration turns to tragedy

A devastating earthquake is the latest in a series of disasters and controversies that have turned what China had hoped would be an Olympic year of celebration into one of turmoil and tragedy.

With tens of thousands of people either dead or missing, Monday’s 7,9-magnitude quake in the south-west of the country has plunged China into mourning less than 90 days before the Games.

The year 2008 was supposed to be an auspicious one for the Chinese, who believe that the figure eight signals good fortune.

Not coincidentally, China’s communist rulers set the date of the Games’ opening ceremony to start at 8pm on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008.

China’s leadership had proudly seen the Games as a coming-out party for a nation that has become one of the world’s most powerful economies.

Among China’s 1,3-billion people, excitement was building as the capital city prepared to welcome the world to the Games, only the third ever staged in Asia.

Ticket sales were massively over-subscribed and more than a million ordinary Chinese stepped forward to work as volunteers for the sporting extravaganza.

But since the start of the year, little has gone right for the Chinese government and Beijing Olympic organisers, apart from the smooth completion of Games’ venues.

The year kicked off with freak winter storms that in January and February killed more than 100 people and paralysed large parts of southern and central China.

The cold snap impacted on vital agricultural areas, one small factor among many that has seen inflation hit near 12-year highs this year, driving up the costs of staple foods such as pork by more than 60%.

Then a wave of political issues kicked in to overshadow the Olympic preparations directly.

The first major blow came in February, with the decision by celebrated United States filmmaker Steven Spielberg to stop work on the Games opening ceremony over China’s ties to the Sudanese government—which is accused of backing Arab militia forces responsible for much of the Darfur violence.

Next came violent protests in Tibet in March against China’s rule of the remote Himalayan region.

China responded with a massive military crackdown that exiled Tibetan leaders said left more than 200 people dead, triggering widespread international condemnation.

Activists seeking to highlight the Tibetans’ cause and other alleged rights abuses by the Chinese government followed up the unrest by shadowing the Olympic torch’s global relay and staging protests.

Instead of being a celebration of China’s global rise, the torch relay turned into a public relations nightmare.

On Tuesday, the Chinese government said the earthquake tragedy was another challenge to the staging of the Games that the Chinese people would unite to overcome.

“The spirit of the Chinese nation, of uniting as one and doing their best and exerting utmost efforts to overcome all kinds of difficulties in disaster relief work, will encourage us to do a good job for the Olympic Games,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang said.—AFP

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