The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.
March 12, 2008 6:37 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
You've probably heard that Beijing will host this summer's 2008 Olympic Games.
For months already, editors - in China and abroad - have splashed the event onto magazine and newspaper pages. Television pundits have picked apart the host city on environmental and political issues. The Internet has buzzed with Olympic scandal.
Thanks to that hype, the Games' sister event has been greatly ignored. After the Olympics end, Beijing will stage the 2008 Paralympic Games (September 6-17).
The Paralympic Games were first held in 1960, in Rome. That year, 400 athletes from 23 countries participated. In Athens in 2004, 3,806 athletes from 136 countries took part.
According to the International Paralympic Committee, the Paralympics are "elite sport events for athletes from six different disability groups." Some Paralympians are wheelchair bound. Some have suffered serious brain damage. Others are amputees. Rather than emphasize the participants' disabilities, the Paralympics are intended to highlight those athletes' athletic achievements.
Of course, the Paralympics have never generated excitment as have the Olympic Games. Operating on a much smaller scale, they've always been an afterthought.
But - here especially - where social commentators have compared Beijing's Olympics to a global dinner party and where people with disabilities receive minimal state support, the Paralympic Games are significant.
Much fuss has been made over China's environmental woes. In fact, the Paralympics could just as well ruin the party.
On the one hand, more than 120 Beijing hotels had nearly completed renovations designed to accommodate people with disabilities as of March 4. According to the Beijing Tourism Commission, those hotels will offer 170 wheelchair friendly rooms this summer. Additionally, the city spent around US$10 million retrofitting sixty-plus popular tourist sites in 2007.
Chinese athletes dominated the 2004 Paralympic Games, capturing 63 gold medals and 141 medals overall to second-place Great Britain's 35 and 95. Beijing's Paralympics will be the largest in history and the city's Olympic organizing committee held a mobilization meeting regarding Paralympics preparations last month. As with the Olympic Games, the Chinese are determined to hold a first-rate Paralympics.
Yet for 2008 Paralympians and their fans, not to mention Beijing's large disabled population, considerable barriers remain. Few banks, buses, malls, shops and subway stations here are wheelchair accessible. The footbridges and overpasses which slice across the city's wide streets are quite steep; most may only be accessed via stairs. Navigating a Beijing sidewalk is dangerous enough on foot, with bicycles and pedestrians cutting past, hefting large loads.
A huge number of people live with disabilities in China - between 60-83 million according to various estimates. In rural areas, where disabled people may lack financial and infrastructural resources, most rely on their families.
In cities like Beijing, blind street muscians and amputee beggars dragging themselves on makeshift carts are fairly common. Reportedly, municipal officials plan to drive/help these people off the city's streets for the Olympic Games.
Additionally, people with disabilities in China often struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination. In Chinese, as in English, the language of disbability is revealing. The most common word for 'disability' in Mandarin is canji, meaning deficient or deformed. Members of the China Disabled Person's Federation have advocated the use of canzhang (incomplete or obstructed).
Other terms, including canfei (crippled and useless), yaba (mute) and shazi (idiot) remain popular, according to the BBC World Service Trust.
A national law protects Chinese disabled persons, but implementation varies. Some people with disabilities have complained that state support is considered a matter of charity rather than of responsibility. Others say disabled people are often exploited in the context of political publicity.
The city's Olympic organizers will heave a sigh of relief on August 24 when the Games are done. If Beijing is less than barrier free when the 2008 Paralympians arrive, however, criticism over China's human rights record could surface again.
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