Beijing's Olympic Glory Washes Away

In 2008, the Beijing Olympics was a symbol of the Chinese government’s ability to organize a world-class event. For the most part, the Chinese people accepted the narrative. Now, in the days leading up to the London Olympics, that legacy is literally being drawn into the city’s sewers.

It all began on July 21, when Beijing was hammered by 7 inches of rain -- with outlying areas receiving as much as 16 inches -- in what the local government claimed was the heaviest rainstorm since records were first kept in 1951. (The unprecedented nature has since been challenged.) The huge volume of water quickly overwhelmed the city’s sewer system, causing floods that turned cars into boats, made stairwells into waterfalls and even set off landslides. The widely-disputed death toll now stands at 37.

From the onset of the disaster, Beijing’s microbloggers were the most reliable source of information on the flooding, coordinating relief and showing up a government that lacked -- by its own admission -- the ability to warn residents of impending danger. In the aftermath of the floods, those microbloggers have undertaken the task of assigning blame for the failure in Beijing’s sewer system. Government officials and unscrupulous contractors are universally regarded as culprits, but the tweeted critique points to a deeper cause: the indiscriminate pursuit of glitzy projects that give “face,” or prestige, to their builders.

On Sunday morning, "fen1234," the handle of a microblogger in Anhui province, logged into Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging service, to tweet:

You can launch a space station, you can sneak a submarine into a marine trench, you can organize the most extravagant Olympic Games in the history of mankind, but you can't even build a city sewer. Those skyscrapers are on the city's surface, sewers are on the inside, the inside is more important than the outside. Please re-tweet.

As of Tuesday evening, more than 1,850 Sina Weibo users had obliged fen1234 with a re-tweet. Similarly, on Monday night, Zou Song Jun, a graphic designer in Tianjin employed by state-owned Tianjin TV, tweeted:

From the Beijing rainstorm come countless touching stories of police, firefighters, volunteers and members of the public ... but behind these stories is a cold question: Why can’t a city which successfully hosted the Olympic Games handle a heavy rain? You have the highest buildings, but sewers that aren’t sufficiently safe; you have the largest square, but there are not nearly enough safe roads ....

For three decades, the Communist Party has asserted its legitimacy in large part on the basis of its ability to pull off big projects. Consequently, considerable propaganda resources were and are expended promoting the successful completion of mega-projects like the Three Gorges Dam, the Shanghai Expo grounds, and the high-speed rail link between Shanghai and Beijing. When those projects succeed, the Party’s stature is enhanced. But when they fail -- as the high-speed rail system did spectacularly and fatally last summer when two trains collided outside the city of Wenzhou -- the Party comes under furious attack.

The 2008 Olympics were intended in large part as a demonstration of the Communist Party’s unrivaled competence. In China, more so than outside China, this was serious business: Any stumble threatened to tarnish that sought-after “world-class” image. Despite some notable bumps along the way, the Party managed the event well, and China (and the world) embraced the Olympics (and Beijing). The city's first-class image emerged from the Games intact, and mostly remained that way until China’s microbloggers realized, last weekend, that Beijing's sewer system was, at best, second-class.

Perhaps the harshest criticism of the floods came from the substantial number of microbloggers who recall China’s deployment of rain dispersal technology during the 2008 Olympics. Without such technology, some microbloggers point out, Beijing might have suffered floods while the whole world was watching. A particularly creative version of this meme was tweeted by a microblogging cat aficionado in Fujian province:

During the Olympics there was a means to disperse storm clouds -- if not, we would have been laughingstocks. Oh Beijing, you’re like a heavily made-up old hag.

Predictably, government propaganda departments have been active in both censoring some of the highest-profile tweeted criticisms and promoting human interest stories, via microblogs and newspapers, that divert attention from government incompetence and its consequences. Criticism on blogs has also been muted, with a few exceptions. The most notable is a long essay by Leng Xue, a soccer reporter, which was posted to the sports channel of the Tencent web portal on Monday. Headlined “If London Suffers from a Rainstorm, What Can Beijing Learn from It?” it takes aim at a number of perceived government and social failings during the floods, including traffic tickets issued to stalled vehicles during the worst of the disaster. The final paragraph is as vicious as anything written and deleted from Sina Weibo in recent days:

If land prices and construction costs in our capital, Beijing, are among the world’s highest even though we have substandard infrastructure; if our media concerns itself with the negative aspects of other countries instead of being concerned with national issues; if the administration of a particular country holds the principle of "money first" when faced with disasters and doesn’t want to do something humane for the victims … then during the London Olympic Games, what Chinese should learn from British people is not sport but the phrase "people first."

What, then, will be the result of this flood-induced re-assessment of Beijing 2008? Few in China doubt that the entire matter will soon recede into the public imagination, becoming just another scandal that once engendered public rage, not unlike the July 2011 high-speed rail crash. Life moves on, especially in an Olympic year. A Sina Weibo microblogger who writes under the handle "Keep Fighting," made just this point in a cynical, but no doubt true, tweet on Monday:

#Remember the victims of the storm# One was drowned to death. Too sad … Today is the first anniversary of the high-speed rail accident. These two events have similar themes but they will both soon be overshadowed by the London Olympics and its gold medals.

And the medals, it turns out, will be bountiful. Xinhua, the state news agency, predicts that China will narrowly beat the U.S. for the most gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, replicating, at least on the podium, its 2008 glory.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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