Sunday, August 03, 2008
Crackpot Olympic Notes and Predictions
The 2008 Summer Games will begin in Beijing this week with an opening ceremony of unprecedented spectacle and showmanship. It will be the most auspicious and thrilling opening in the history of the Games. If it is one thing that China excels at (even more than economic development and cuisine) it's spectacle and showmanship. They've been at it longer than anyone else and take it from me, they are the best. It is a prime exponent of the importance that Asian culture places on Face, where the way things appear are more important than the way things are. It is the venerated cultural reasoning behind why China doesn't feel all elements of an agreement are binding, should they prove inconvenient at the point of execution.
Take for instance the issue of open communication and Internet access for foreign journalists during the Olympics. China agreed to this and now at the last minute, they are requiring hotels housing these journalists to install government-issue firewall software, blocking sites and scrutinizing communications that could cause China to lose Face. You can bet your bottom dollar that all onsite Olympic press room communications will be scrupulously monitored.
Those of us who've recently spent a considerable amount of time living in China, when we heard about this "open for foreign journalists" agreement all said "yeah, right." It makes no difference that China appeared to have renegotiated this with the IOC, they will firewall the journalists, that is their way. I lived with the clogged bandwidth of heavily filtered Internet access, with no access to certain news sites, of periodic blackouts of sensitive TV news items on CNN International the whole time I was there. Government has controlled the flow of information for thousands of years there and it's a hard habit to break. They are betting that the showmanship and hospitality with which they present the Olympics will overcompensate for this and I am betting that they are correct (if not right).
China has the home court advantage in the athletic competitions, and they are superbly prepared, so I am also betting that they will give team America a run for the roses for the most medals won. They will either win the medal count or come so close (including disputed decisions, which we can expect) that their aggregation will be a bigger story than an American medal count win. They'll have the largest cheering section in history. When I talk or email with my Chinese friends they all say the excitement is momentous but the inconveniences of urban life during the run up to the Games gets to them as well. If I ask about the air quality, both foreign and native Beijingers unanimously have avoided answering.
Unknown is how they can clean up the Beijing air quality in time. They will throw every regulation, control, every piece of technology at it and cook the books on reports to make it seem better (they do not even include ozone level in their air quality statistics). This weekend has seen three clear days in a row, which bodes well, but given typical weather for this time of year, hot, dusty, humid, overcast or stormy, this may not endure. Environmental controls are very new to China and since they are not cost-effective in the short term, China is not known for their efficiency at nor its dedication to implementing them. I was in China from 2002 to 2006, the last three years of that in Beijing, and when I departed in May of 06, well after Beijing knew it was going to host the Olympics in 08, the air quality, putrid when I arrived, had gotten steadily and progressively worse. They didn't start in time. Smog control in their new and rapidly growing automobile industry? No way; it would slow the Chinese prime directive: economic development. Industrial emission control? Hardly. It would be a miracle if the air quality remained reasonable for the duration of the Games.
There will be no noteworthy political protest visible in Beijing during the Olympics. That kind of pollution they can and will unapologetically manage.
There have been strong calls in the U.S. for soon to be ex-President Bush (how I love that thought) to decline to attend the opening ceremonies. But that was never even a slight possibility. Bush knows China well. It would lose China face and he can't afford that in any way. Besides, now that the Bush administration has sidelined our moral authority in any human rights discussion, it wouldn't even have made a point.
I watched that birds nest Olympic Stadium go up in Beijing. I passed it several times a week on my rounds. It's a magnificent structure. Even under construction it had a sublime and vigorous elegance. It's placed perfectly, in an aesthetic and historic neighborhood on Chang'an and you could always have a long look at it because traffic was usually jammed around there. But traffic can and will be controlled. There's a new subway line and they will enforce massive traffic limitations. That they can do. It's all for the show and it will be a truly memorable one.
Mainer, New Yawka, Beijinger, Californian, points between. News, views and ballyhoos that piqued my interest and caused me to sigh, cry, chuckle, groan or throw something.
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