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Blogging Beijing

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.

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April 1, 2008 3:28 AM

"I'm not so keen on the Olympic Games"

Posted by Daniel Beekman

What are your thoughts on the Olympic Games?

Grimacing, a craggy South Asian tailor betrayed himself and his city - then resumed pacing Hong Hong's notorious Nathan Road.

"Olympics? China Travel Tours," he shot back, disappearing beneath heavy eyebrows. "My thoughts? Go away."

Hong Kong - a dense island metropolis of 7 million people, rising deep green from the surf off China's south coast - will host the 2008 Olympic equestrian events from August 9-21.

The world's nimblest horses and ablest riders should enjoy Hong Kong. They'll trot right around Beijing's crowds and pollution. What's less sure is this: will the citizens of Hong Kong enjoy Olympic equestrian?

Some Hong Kongers are frustrated. Some aren't. Most all of them recognize what co-hosting in 2008 means: the Mainland Chinese have arrived...and plan to stay. Hong Kong, formerly a British colony, passed to the People's Republic in 1997.

"We're excited for the Olympics," a middle-aged woman selling gag gifts - fake spiders and rubber hot dogs - at Stanley Market crowed. "The Games are good for us, because Hong Kong is part of China. China is the father and Hong Kong is the son."

An old man pouring over newspaper stock reports disagreed.

"I'm not so keen on the Olympic Games," he said, crossing one slender, bony leg over the other. "They've become a meddlesome political affair, not a sports competition.

"All these (Mainland) Chinese in Hong Kong are very hot about it. The city has completely changed. Hong Kongers have become a bunch of yes men - we've lost our morals. I prefer the old Hong Kong, yet China is a giant. What can we do?"

In 2005, Olympic organizers moved the equestrian contest 1250 miles from Beijing to ensure a disease-free zone for the horses. Substandard quarantine procedures and health concerns nessecitated the switch.

Hong Kong Olympic committee president Timothy Fok embraced the decision.

"Hong Kong is delighted to have this opportunity to contribute further to the Olympic Movement," Fok, a Hong Kong legislator aligned with the city's pro-Beijing wing told Xinhua. "Supporters of equestrian sport can rest assured that we will do everything we can to host them in the best possible way."

A colony for 135 years and a global financial center, Hong Kong boasts its own unqiue culture - fast-paced and cosmopolitan. Here, wedged between skyscrapers and tropical hills, British, Chinese and South Asian personalities dance.

Apprehension gripped Hong Kong a decade ago as the island prepared for its return to communist China. Declaring 'one country, two systems,' PRC leaders granted the government of Hong Kong responsibility for its own legal system, police force, monetary system, customs policy, immigration policy and delegates to international organizations (e.g. the International Olympic Committee) - at least until 2047.

Hong Kong had established strong economic ties with the Mainland already - serving as China's main source of foreign investment following that country's 1978 reforms. In 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping designated Shenzhen, then a Mainland fishing village just north of Hong Kong, a Special Economic Zone. But the handover's political implications bothered Hong Kongers who valued the island's British heritage and those who advocated democracy.

Of the 25.25 million tourists who visited Hong Kong in 2007, 13.58 million were Mainland Chinese. Thousands commute from Shenzhen to Hong Kong every day. Despite expectations that Hong Kongers would gain universal suffrage by 2012, Beijing announced last December that a 400-member committee would select the city's Chief Executive Officer until 2017.

The 2008 Olympic Games - for many Mainland Chinese a source of national pride - have recieved patchy support from Hong Kongers who claim complicated identities.

"We don't know much about horse jumping," said a young Hong Kong hosteler, speaking English (most of the city's citizens speak Catonese rather than Mandarin Chinese. "We like football and horse racing. We Hong Kongers think local. The Olympics are coming and we don't really care. If you want to know more about horse jumping you can go to the Jockey Club."

Few Hong Kongers are familiar with equestrian, an extremely expensive sport. According to the Tapei Times, Hong Kong contains just 1,000 to 1,500 regular riders. Legislators, concerned about the 'lukewarm' reception the Games have recieved, earmarked US$20 million for Olympics promotion last year.

In fact, horse-racing is a wildly popular pursuit in Hong Kong - where the sport collects over 10 percent of the metropolis' annual tax revenue. Hong Kongers like horses, and like to bet. Still, a series of international horse shows at facilities in Hong Kong's New Territories were sparsely attended in 2007.

The city - working with Mainland organizers - has sponsored a number of stunts to build excitement around August's Games.

In February, Hollywood Kung Fu star Jackie Chan pulled on riding boots and a hard helmet to publicize Hong Kong's Olympic role. Last month, more than 3,000 participants, including 1,000 members of the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison, planted trees for the Games.

Eighteen life-sized horse statues designed by local artists - one for each of Hong Kong's districts - rode forth on March 3 to engage a disinterested public. Also in March, 548,000 people attended Victoria Park's annual flower show. The theme this year: Beijing's Olympics.

"We're all proud of the Games," said an elderly woman tacking a 2008 Olympics poster up by Hong Kong's waterfront. Splintered fishing junks bobbed in the background. "Before we considered ourselves Hong Kongers first. That's starting to change."

On the one hand, Hong Kong is a jewel in China's crown - a brilliant, sophisticated jewel. But the city's co-hosting of the 2008 Olympics carries certain risks for an anxious government in Beijing.

Switzerland's equestiran team has announced it won't attend the Games and two bronze-medalist Canadian riders told a Toronto newspaper that Hong Kong's August heat would keep them away as well.

Protestors for an independent Tibet and/or Chinese intervention in Sudan's Darfur are planning to disrupt the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay - history's most ambitious. As the Torch winds its way to China, there's only so much Beijing's organizers can do. But here in the PRC...

A high-profile stop on the torch's domestic tour, Hong Kong is no stranger to political protest. The torch arrives on April 30.

For Hong Kong, the Olympics are becoming a balancing act. In early March, Chinese reporters and consumers blasted Adidas - the global sportswear brand - for a line of sports bags and polo shirts released in Hong Kong. The bags and shirts featured an Adidas logo...on China's national flag.

Chinese law forbids using the flag for commercial purposes - something Adidas claims it was aware of. The bags and shirts, according to the company, were marketed only in Hong Kong and not on the mainland. Hong Kongers are often stereotyped as trendy and materialistic.

"They're ready for the Olympics in Beijing - we're ready here too," a middle-aged woman said. "Head to a sports bar if you're a fan of the Games."

Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:



"Commentary: Stop irresponsible clamor for boycotting Beijing Olympics"

"Beijing tries to kick smoking habit before Olympics"

"Beijing not first Olympics to provoke protest"

"Olympic Torch Rekindled in Beijing"

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