Conservative Home

« Derek Brownlee MSP: The perils of Local Income Tax | Main | Fiona Hodgson: The women of Rwanda »

Jeremy Hunt MP: What I learnt in China

Hunt_jeremy_formal Last Saturday Jeremy Hunt listed the ten questions he was seeking to answer during his visit to the Beijing Olympics.  In this Platform the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport outlines some answers...

ONE: The Beijing Olympics are reputedly costing $40bn. That is more than double our budget, and China has the advantage of much lower labour rates. So where is the extra money going? Is it on Beijing's infrastructure? Is it simply vanity in wanting to host the world's best ever Olympics? I'd like to understand where the extra money is going.

The answer is simple: venues and infrastructure. The $40 bn (not officially confirmed) covered brand new, state of the art, permanent sports venues. London is rightly being careful not to build permanent structures unless we know there will be a good legacy use for them. Oh and the Chinese threw in two new tube lines as well. We did actually try out the tube when there - at less than 10p a ride it felt good not be debiting our Oyster cards a fortune...

TWO: What are the practical things that can go wrong? In Beijing's case they have dealt with pollution by banning cars and forcing factories to shut, but this kind of totalitarian response is inconceivable in London. We need to be smarter in our planning for potential pitfalls. In particular how good are our transport estimates for a tube system that is already bursting at the seams and how well will our security plans cope with the threat of terrorism?

Hugh met the person responsible for transport in 2012. It is a major worry. In particular, the Chinese had dedicated "Olympic" lanes running through Beijing to ease the traffic for those with Olympic passes - something that works fine when you have 6 lane highways running through the middle of the city. I doubt Londoners, with our much narrower streets, will be as willing to accept the kind of constraints on traffic that might cause.  Security remains the big unknown - we have the interim security report due in September and the final one by the end of the year so we will have a better sense of the anticipated threat at that stage.

THREE: The International Olympic Committee reportedly said that we cannot have the shooting at Bisley and the equestrian events in Windsor Great Park as they are too far from the Olympic village. This means we will have to spend money on temporary facilities that will be pulled down rather than enhancing permanent facilities as part of an Olympic legacy. Why then Beijing has been allowed to spread events across seven cities, including hosting the equestrian events as far away as Hong Kong?

Mixed signals here. The truth is that venues have to be approved by the international sports federations, who base their decision on the quality of the facilities offered. They are unlikely to oppose moving a venue if it meant better legacy facilities. The question is money - moving the shooting to Bisley would probably cost more than current plans - and whether the Olympic budget has that slack. I did however sense a politically-correct bias against shooting amongst British 2012 organisers which I thought was totally unacceptable.

FOUR: People judge an Olympic Games differently in a developed to a developing country. For China 2008 is intended to be a "coming out" as Tokyo was for Japan in 1964 and Seoul for Korea in 1988. Developed countries are judged much more on issues such as whether the games turn a profit and whether the facilities are used afterwards or become white elephants. What will London need to achieve for 2012 to be a success?

Beijing was China showcasing its new-found economic strength to the world. People went to be impressed, and by and large were. However it did not feel particularly about China or Chinese culture (apart from the awesome opening ceremony). With London people will be looking for an experience more about the special character of Britain and London, and delivery on our central promise to inspire young people through sport.

FIVE: The Olympics were intended to be a PR triumph for China on the world stage, but with demonstrations in Tibet and bombs in Xinjiang they have actually reminded people just how unfree China is. How will the UK fare when we are under the international spotlight, and how will we stop people equating our legitimate involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with the totally unacceptable suppression of human rights in China?

Good question. We need to handle this carefully, but the major difference will be that as a open democracy with basic rights if anyone does wish to question Britain's actions and role in the world, they will be free to do so. Our willingness to engage in that debate openly and publicly will be the best demonstration of the strength of a free society.

SIX: How is Britain doing in its medal hopes? So far we have had some great successes in cycling and swimming. In terms of our ambition to come fourth in 2012 though there are some serious clouds on the horizon, namely Gordon Brown's failure to raise the promised £100m of private sponsorship for UK Sport.

Fantastically well - and it was a privilege for me personally to witness Christine Ohuruogu and the men's rowing 4 win their golds. The only shadow was the government backtracking on its commitment to find £100m to fund the next stage of athletes training to take us up to 2012. Outrageously Andy Burnham is talking about another lottery raid to fund it - less than 6 months after his predecessor James Purnell promised there would be no more raids on the lottery. How will it inspire young people to take up sport if the budget for grassroots sport is once again decimated?

SEVEN: Have the Chinese lived up to their promises on freedom? With the arrest of the ITN correspondent John Ray it doesn't currently look like they have met their pledge to meet international standards of media freedom. I'll also be interested to see how much freedom there is for people visiting the Olympics? I will google Falun Gong and Free Tibet when I am in Beijing and see what comes up.

No luck when I googled Falun Gong or Free Tibet - or even ConHome! I could get through to them from the computers in the BBC media centre though, so the media did get the free access they were promised (in the end).

EIGHT: Is the UK doing enough to support the rights of democracy activists in China? President Bush made a strong speech in favour of freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. The FCO has tended to favour behind the scenes pressure - and Gordon Brown shamefully said nothing in public about human rights on his last visit to China. Are we really exerting behind the scenes pressure (as Margaret Thatcher did with Gorbachev) or are we just being pathetic?

I had a meeting with our Ambassador to ask this very point. He assured me we do lots behind the scenes - and sometimes publicly. I got the feeling that it is basically megaphone diplomacy, with the Chinese simply so used to Western complaints about human rights they ignore them. However we have had some success in persuading them to record police interviews/interrogations. My Chinese friends also tell me that the human rights atmosphere is the most benign it has been for many years - the key question will be whether this lasts post Olympics.

NINE: With Russian aggression in Georgia at the top of everyone's minds, what does that mean about China's role in the global balance of power? China - whilst fiercely defending its rights within what it does consider its borders (e.g. Taiwan and Tibet) - has never had extra-territorial ambitions. Do we now need China to be our friend - as it was in the Cold War?

Probably yes - although it is too early to gauge the Sino-Russian relationship. As fellow autocracies they have plenty in common, and have also resolved their territorial disputes.

TEN: What difference can the election of a Conservative government in 2009 or 2010 realistically make to the London Olympics in 2012? I would like to think we would never have tried to hoodwink people over the budget as Labour did. But taking over the reins so close to the event itself severely constrains our options. Where can we have the most impact in making London 2012 a success?

The biggest gap in the 2012 preparations is the lack of a strategy to create a legacy for the Olympics outside London. The promise of London 2012 was to inspire a whole nation of young people with sport - but the government has still not published its detailed legacy plans. I think this is because their budget miscalculations mean they have basically run out of cash. They have however announced a plan for free swimming for the over-60's - all very worthwhile, but what about young people?

Apart from ensuring budgetary discipline, sorting this out will be the biggest Olympics priority for a Conservative government, not least because the implications for other policy areas - such as obesity - are very significant.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.