Skiing outside of Beijing has long been an icy and treacherous affair. Like everywhere else in China, the hills tend to be packed with people. And most seemed to spend their time sprawled out on the hill, forming a human obstacle course.
China’s winter sports abilities are sure to improve a lot before 2022, when Beijing is now slated to host the Winter Olympics Games. On Friday, the International Olympic Committee voted 44-40 to have Beijing hold the winter games, over Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Human rights activists criticized the move, citing China’s repression of dissent ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Other decried China’s thick and smoggy air. And some pointed to Beijing’s lack of snow and unfamiliarity with winter sports: According to the state-run People’s Daily, fewer than 5 percent of people in Beijing currently ski, and almost all of them are beginners.
But the most serious objection to the games might be economic. While the winter games will attract tourists and raise China’s profile abroad, history suggests it will come at the cost of useless construction and more debt – things that China already has plenty of.
Beijing said it would re-use infrastructure from 2008, including the iconic “Bird’s Nest” stadium designed by Ai Weiwei before he fell out of favor for the opening and closing ceremony. The “Water Cube,” the swimming center during the 2008, would be transformed for curling. But about half of the venues for the games would be new, and 600 new hotels and a high-speed rail line would be built for the occasion.
It’s easy to understand China’s motivation in holding the event. The government has used international events as "coming out parties" for almost all of its cities over the past few decades: Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Shanghai Expo in 2010, and Guangzhou Asian Games the same year.
All of these events brought face to local governments and raised China’s prestige and profile. They served as a reason and a deadline for cleaning up these cities -- building subways and roads, knocking down old neighborhoods, even teaching people English. But they also left behind useless infrastructure and conceivably huge debts.
Hosting the Olympics typically is not a boon for an economy. As my colleague Max Ehrenfreund has written, international sporting events are often enormously expensive and don’t deliver the benefits that organizers expect – the increase in tourism usually doesn’t offset the cost of building stadiums and other infrastructure. The winter Olympics in Sochi left Russia with a $50 billion price tag; Greece's bid for the 2004 summer games certainly hasn't helped its economy today.
Most developed country democracies seem to be recognizing this. Oslo, Munich and Stockholm all bowed out of bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics, after their citizens complained about the potential cost. Only emerging economies and autocracies are eager to bid.
For those who know the Chinese economy, Beijing's plan to hold a second Olympics (the first-ever city to do so) is particularly worrying. Economists regularly accuse China of having an addiction to wasteful infrastructure spending to prop up growth.
Chinese leaders have been talking for years now about transitioning the economy away from its heavy dependence on investment in things like roads and real estate toward a focus on consumers and the service sector, a process that is commonly known as “rebalancing.”
In a developing country of more than a billion people, much of this new infrastructure has been incredibly useful. High speed trains have allowed mega cities to flourish, and new highways and cold storage have been important for expanding retail. But a lot of money has also been misspent, particularly on pet projects of local governments.
The area around Beijing, in northern China, is particularly problematic. Earlier this year, the government embarked on a plan to create a supercity around Beijing that would be about the size of Kansas and hold 130 million people. Tianjin, which will be included in that super city, is building its own replica of Manhattan, like New York City except empty of people. China has also built a massive water infrastructure project at a cost of more than $30 billion to bring water to that arid north.
In the short run, those investments are all counted as economic growth. But in the longer run, they could easily prove to be money-wasting endeavors.
It’s already taking more and more financial fuel to keep the Chinese economy going, and debt is building up at a worrying rate. Outstanding loans for companies and households were 207 percent of gross domestic at the end of June, up from 125 percent in 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The economy grew 7 percent in the second quarter compared with the year earlier, but corporate and household debt rose 12 percent in the same period.
As long as the economy is roaring along, that debt isn’t that much of an issue. But if growth continues to slow, borrowers could default on their loans, and those effects would ripple through the economy. Slowing growth has already propelled nonperforming loans to a record $23 billion in the first quarter, and that number will likely continue to grow.
The 2008 Olympics was a great show, and there’s little doubt that China could it off again. But at what cost?
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