The mystery of the half-filled stands at many events at the 2008 Olympic Games has been solved, according to Chinese internet users, who say it is the result of a policy to prevent the gathering of large and possibly uncontrollable crowds.
They claim ticket sales to the public were secretly restricted. Blocks of tickets went to government departments, Communist party officials or state-owned companies, which have quietly obeyed orders not to hand them out. “People are so angry because they slept all night outside ticket booths and got nothing and now they see this,” said one blogger, Jian Yu.
Official explanations eroded swiftly because internet insurgents have rapidly identified cracks in the perfect facade constructed for the Olympics.
In the nine days since Chinese leaders presided over a grandiose - and, it turns out, partly faked - opening ceremony, one fact after another has eluded the censors and fuelled public indignation at the costs and the charade. Protected, they hope, by online anonymity, some of China’s 1.3 billion people are daring to wonder where it will all end.
Anger turns to uprising along the Silk Road
At some football matches in the northern city of Shenyang, only a third of the seats were taken. Even some gymnastics finals, usually one of the biggest attractions on the programme, were not sold out.
Nobody seems to have explained it to the International Olympic Committee, which is baffled by the empty seats, or to the sponsors, who are disappointed.
The policy meant that some British supporters have been deprived of the excitement of seeing the Games. Even parents of competitors, such as those of Rebecca Adlington, the gold medal-winning swimmer, have complained about being unable to get seats.
Jeff Hunter, group operations director for Sportsworld, the official travel and ticket agent for the British Olympic Association, said: “It is surprising that not all the venues have been as full as they could have been.”
Lower-ranking Chinese officials hastily bused in paid “volunteers” to populate the stands in Beijing, appreciating the embarrassment caused by leaving them half-empty, but public relations remain a matter of indifference to most guardians of public order.
Security has been heavy-handed from the start. As the film director Zhang Yimou’s extravaganza kicked off with a boom, I watched on a giant screen in a park, one of the few venues where ordinary Chinese people were allowed to gather.
They cheered as the fireworks exploded, few looking up to find that there were, in fact, none to be seen because the sequence was produced by software, not gunpowder.
They cooed at nine-year-old Lin Miaoke, hardly caring that her lyrics were obviously mimed, and as she sang they went into a patriotic delirium when goose-stepping soldiers raised the national flag. Yet even these loyal citizens could not be trusted. We were surrounded by dozens of police who locked the gates to keep us in and others out.
Chao Chanqing, an exiled journalist widely read on web-sites accessible in China, has accused Zhang, the director, of playing the same role as Leni Riefenstahl, who filmed an epic documentary for Hitler at the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
The director scorns the comparison but he admitted that a Chinese leader ordered him to make changes to the ceremony. “I had no chance to reject his opinion,” he told the Nanfang Weekend newspaper. Analysts said he was referring to vice-president Xi Jinping, heir apparent to the top job.
Government officials swept thousands of migrant workers out of Beijing – the very people who built the stadium, at least 10 of them paying with their lives. Police arrested hundreds of provincial petitioners who sought justice in the capital and sent at least 58 to labour camps for “reeducation”.
The sick were told that routine surgery was cancelled in every hospital and officials shut some psychiatric patients inside their wards.
Even as the nation is supposed to be keeping a keen tally of the gold medal count, dissenters are daring to raise the issue of how much the Games have cost the people of China.
For all its export might, China is still a poor, largely agrarian country with perhaps 700m farmers and 150m migrant workers. The size of its economy is huge but, measured by wealth per head, it ranks 109th in the world, comparable with Swaziland or Morocco.
It faces an acute crisis as its people live longer but fewer are born; the old lack pensions and healthcare must be paid for. Half the population does not have clean drinking water and 16 cities are among the most polluted on earth.
So why, asked the mainland Chinese writers in a Hong Kong magazine named Kaifang (Opening Up), did China blow more than £20 billion on the Games?
They calculate that the total costs may exceed £30 billion, more than the Chinese government will spend this year on education or public health or relief for the Sichuan earthquake. These are questions that would make any ruler nervous.
Chinese leaders prided themselves on the splendid reception for dignitaries and 10,500 athletes. They rejected criticism of their policies on Darfur, Burma and Zimbabwe, brushing aside foreign demonstrators complaining about Tibet.
However, they remain worried about political undercurrents among their people. These can be unexpected. Despite pervasive internet control, censors could not stop nationalist criticism about the diplomatic price China has paid for mounting the Games.
Exhibit one for the ultra-patriots was a border treaty signed on July 21 between China and Russia to settle disputes over their Siberian territories that led to armed clashes during the cold war. Official accounts of the treaty emphasised the return to China of 1½ islands in the icy Amur River that divides the two nations.
Online critics were enraged because the foreign ministry appeared to have recognised the 19th-century conquest of thousands of square miles of land by Tsarist Russia. “These lands belong to all the people of China,” a blogger called “Tiger” wrote. It was only on the day the treaty was signed that the attendance of Vladimir Putin at the opening ceremony of the Games was confirmed.
Exhibit two was an agreement on June 18 between China and Japan to embark on joint exploration for oil and gas in a disputed zone of the East China Sea. It was only after this agreement that Yasuo Fukuda, Japan's prime minister, confirmed that he, too, would attend the opening.
It may seem remote to the athletes and sports fans in Beijing, but national pride is central to the Olympic message that China's government has crafted for its own youth.
Few foreigners will make their way to the Stalinist palace in west Beijing that houses the national military museum, but thousands of schoolchildren were trooping through a new exhibition there last week.
They saw a version that traces their country's descent into poverty and chaos to British aggression in the 1840 opium war. "The imperial powers descended upon China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people," the exhibit reminded viewers.
There was no mention of the famines that may have claimed 30m lives after Mao's "great leap forward", of the decade of chaos in the Cultural Revolution, which killed 1m more, or of the democracy protests in 1989 which ended in the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Despite the precise attention given to such a perfect display, somebody seems to have missed the bold headline on a student newspaper published in 1919, when China was in a ferment of idealism and its Communist party did not exist.
It stated: "Democracy - a government for the people, by the people and of the people - our motto."
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