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Big Olympic spend, but little debate

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

A Chinese worker puts the finishing touches to the Olympics stadium known as the Bird's Nest in Beijing on Wednesday
China has vastly outspent what Greece paid in 2004
With total spending expected to exceed $40bn (20bn), Beijing's Olympic Games may be the most expensive in history.

China has spent the money on new stadiums, infrastructure projects and cleaning up the capital's polluted environment.

In other host cities, this high cost would have led to heated public debate, but in China there has been little controversy.

In a country where information is not always accessible, many people seem not to know how much is being spent.

Calculating the costs associated with an Olympic Games is a tricky business, and the Beijing event is no different.

One problem is deciding what is - and what is not - an Olympic-related cost.

Sporting arenas certainly come under the former category.

[Including infrastructure projects] the total bill is just over $42bn. By comparison, Athens four years ago cost about $16bn


According to the Beijing organising committee (Bocog), the city has spent 13bn yuan ($1.9bn) building 12 new stadiums and refurbishing others.

Many of these have been built with money from both government and the private sector.

City authorities put up half the money for China's new national stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. A private consortium paid the rest.

In return, these private firms will have the right to manage the stadium for 30 years before handing it back to the government.

Beijing organisers estimate they will also spend $2.1bn on operational costs, such as hosting the opening ceremony and staging sporting events.

Part of this money comes from the International Olympic Committee, which gets its money by selling sponsorship and television rights.

In addition to these costs, the city has spent $20.5bn over the past 10 years on environmental projects, according to Bocog.

There have been improvements to the city's water supplies, its sewage system and projects directed at cleaning up its polluted air.

Beijing has spent billions more dollars on new infrastructure projects, including a new airport terminal and extra subway lines.

The dragon-shaped airport terminal cost $4bn to build.

'Catalyst, not cause'

According to Xinhua, China's official news agency, these infrastructure projects mean the total bill is just over $42bn.

By comparison, Athens four years ago cost about $16bn.

Sculpture of Olympic runners close to the main Olympics stadium in Beijing
China is determined to put on a stunning visual spectacle

But the Beijing organisers argue that some projects would have been carried out anyway and so are not really Olympic costs.

"The preparation for the Olympic Games has served as a catalyst for Beijing," said Bocog spokesman Sun Weide. "Beijing residents are going to benefit most."

But however you add up the figures, they come to a big sum, and in most other countries there would have been debate about the cost.

There is already controversy in London about the rising cost of hosting the next summer Olympics - still four years away.

Infrastructure and operational costs have already pushed the estimated tab up to about 11.3bn ($22.6bn).

A spokeswoman for the London organisers admitted that spiralling costs was "an issue that worries taxpayers".

But in China, there has been little public debate about how much China is spending on the Beijing Games, which begin on 8 August.

And all this in a country where, according to the World Bank, there were 135 million people living on less than $1.25 a day in 2005.

Lack of transparency

Journalism Professor Zhan Jiang, of China Youth University for Political Science, said the lack of debate partly stemmed from a lack of information.

"At the moment, the Chinese government is not completely open and transparent about how it spends its money," he said.

There has been some debate about the cost of the Olympics, he added, but mostly between academics.

On the streets, people seem to have little idea how much the Olympics is costing - and often do not care.

Beijing resident Wang Na does not know what the Olympic bill will be.

And the 26-year-old added: "It's worth it because this is an opportunity for the world to understand China and for us to entertain them."

Another resident, 30-year-old Zhang Ke, said: "We ought not to be evaluating the Olympics by asking how much it costs."

That kind of attitude towards government spending might change in the future, according to Prof Zhan.

He believes the more information people are given about spending, the more they will want to debate where the money goes.

But that is not going to happen before this Olympics.


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