China Flips on Builders' Deaths

ReutersA worker moving through rubble outside Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium.
BEIJING -- A Chinese official grudgingly acknowledged Monday that six workers have died working on venues for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The statement came only after a series of clarifications in which Ding Zhenkuan, deputy chief of Beijing's Municipal Bureau of Work Safety, began by telling reporters that no deaths had taken place at the 91,000-seat National Stadium -- known as the "Bird's Nest."

Earlier this month, The Sunday Times newspaper of London reported that at least 10 workers had died at the venues and said Chinese officials were covering up the accidents.

The iconic stadium is likely to become an enduring symbol of the Games.

"On behalf of the organizers, I would like to make it clear that there was no such case that 10 people died on the Bird's Nest," Ding said, answering a question from a Hong Kong reporter.

Several minutes later he asked to clarify his first answer.

"I will add a few things," Ding said. "The figure is not accurate. In the Bird's Nest there were two incidents, one in 2006 and one is in 2007. The deaths of two people are true. ... We have punished the related personnel."

Cornered after the 45-minute news conference, he again revised his answer, saying six workers had died at all venues over the last five years. He did not say where the other four deaths had taken place. He also said there was one other injury that required hospitalization and three that did not.

The Beijing Olympics are a source of tremendous national pride, with government officials hoping to pull off a flawless show to demonstrate China's rapid rise in political and economic power.

Organizers have also downplayed the seriousness of Beijing's choking pollution, which could prompt some athletes to stay away from the city until the last minute.

Li Yizhong, minister of the State Administration of Work Safety, said last week he was unaware of work-related deaths on the project but promised to investigate.

The Sunday Times said Chinese authorities have covered up the deaths and doled out large compensation payments to guarantee the silence of fellow workers who witnessed the accidents.