The theme song for the Beijing Olympics, now 28 days away, is “We Are Ready.”
The International Olympic Committee, which just completed the last formal inspection of the preparations for the Games, agrees. “Here in the Chinese capital you can now really sense the excitement and anticipation,” said IOC Coordination Chairman Hein Verbruggen as he wound up a two-day visit this week. “The quality of preparation, the readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail for these Games have set a gold standard for the future.”
Of course. The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has worked feverishly for years to build a magnificent site in the Chinese capital for the global event, and the six co-host cities–Shanghai, Shenyang, Hong Kong, Qingdao, Qinhuangdao, and Tianjin–have made sure that their Olympic venues will also be in top form. The Chinese central government has constructed the supporting infrastructure and mobilized the population with techniques reminiscent of its Maoist past. At this moment, officials all over the country are attending to their July tasks, including rounding up dissidents, deporting foreigners, and intimidating journalists. Most everyone expected Chinese officials to implement a crackdown prior to the Olympics, but no observer expected them to go to such obsessive lengths. The repressive measures, however, have created a sullen mood across many segments of China’s normally lively populace.
Chinese officials have proved that, at least over a limited period, they can successfully manipulate a population in order to stage an extravaganza. Yet they are having a harder time against another adversary. An algae bloom has choked about a third of the course for the sailing events in Qingdao, and tens of thousands of soldiers and volunteers are hauling thick green vegetation out of the water. In Beijing, the challenge is more complex. When I was there last week I saw the sun once. Over the course of three days it was visible only for a few moments through the petrochemical haze when my wife and I left for the airport. During the weekend the oppressive smog and cloud lifted after a heavy downpour, but the relief was temporary as the heavy pollution returned Monday. And in a story that could only come out of the Bible, locusts, carried by winds from the north, threaten the Chinese capital next month.
The final days leading to the opening ceremony on August 8 will witness a heroic battle between humankind, represented by Chinese officialdom, and Mother Nature. There is too much national prestige at stake for the modern Chinese state to fail, so we can expect the dictators and their technocrats to overcome especially challenging difficulties. They will gas the locusts, cart away the algae, and somehow cleanse the air. Environmental degradation in China is by now irreversible, but the government can still marshal its considerable resources to win temporary victories.
After the athletes and tourists go home, many will undoubtedly say that the success of the Beijing Olympics proves the viability of authoritarianism in the 21st century. It will be more precise to say that Chinese authoritarians are able to stage awe-inspiring spectacles but that their tactics are not sustainable in the long-run.