Michael Sheridan of The Sunday Times of London explains all the empty seats in Beijing in a story about how the carefully planned spectacle masks a very poor nation in which the government is running scared as voices of dissent are starting to be heard via the Internet.
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.
It is a good bet that the "ordinary Chinese" seen on American TV are anything but. When International Olympic officials complained of the empty seats, the Chinese government bused in paid placeholders.
Sherdian notes that despite its burgeoning manufacturing sector, China remains a poor and largely agrarian nation. It's per capita wealth ranks between Swaziland and Morroco. It has an aging population, a low birth rate, and massive pollution problems in its major cities. Half the population still lacks clean drinking water. Given these problems, some Chinese have been asking why the government is spending so much to impress foreigners.
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.