Only two years from Tuesday, China, one of the world's oldest civilizations, hosts the Olympic Summer Games, one of the world's most prestigious events – for the first time.
Now, as the clock ticks louder, expectations that the Olympics will cure all, reform all, and modernize all in China – are piling up thick and fast.
Everyone inside and out of China has a hope that the Games will improve their cause. The range of hope is breathtaking: from an end to spitting on the sidewalks of Beijing to some who dream the Games will tip China toward democracy.
Even the opening date of the Games is seen as promising: 8-8-08, is regarded as a very auspicious sign of prosperity among numerologists in east Asia. Beijing's goal since winning the bid has been to hold "the best Games ever."
Beijing officials want to clean up the Internet and end air pollution, smelly taxis, and bad manners. There's a boom in speaking English, clean up of trash and public toilet's cleanup, new city bus lines, and a $500 million investment in three new subway lines. Even "Olympic vegetables," a cornucopia of Mother Earth fruits grown in special fields for foreigners, are getting individual bar codes – something expected to have lasting benefit for quality control.
Human rights groups are putting out the message that unless China improves its record on Tibetan autonomy and treatment of North Korean refugees, Muslims in Xinjiang, and prisoners, to name a few – it will face global embarrassment. Press freedom groups waggle their fingers to say if China can't end its press restrictions like censoring news, and arresting Internet dissidents, the media will somehow make that the subject of coverage, not the Games.
In fact, expectations are so high for 2008 that many analysts wonder whether any of them can realistically take hold or be absorbed in the hurly burly of the weeks–long sports extravaganza. China so far has shown no official interest in political reform tied to the games. If anything, it has wanted to use the Olympics to show that its one–party state and ancient civilization deserve, at long last, some respect.
"Beijing is spending as much effort on controlling the environment for the Olympics as it is on construction," says Russell Leigh Moses a professor of politics and international relations at the People's University. "For the sports authority this is about gaining as much gold as possible. For the party, it is about the greatness of their rule. For the construction team, it is about image and showcase."
Six years ago, prior to July 13, 2001 when Beijing was given the official nod by the International Olympic Committee, the debate was whether China deserved the games. It was a fight between those who felt China had been excluded for too long, and deserved a chance to open up and liberalize – versus those who felt that Beijing would exploit the games as a way to legitimate its regime to its own people.
The former group used the Seoul Olympics of 1998 as an example: Even today the IOC website cheerfully affirms that "in a coup for the Olympic Movement, [South] Korea turned democratic in order to welcome the world to the summer games."
Yet the latter group used the 1936 Berlin Games as an example: Nazi Germany using the games to tout its comeback as a European power and to advocate Aryan supremacy.
Probably neither example applies to China, say Asia experts. Australians like to remind Olympic officials that preparation for the 2000 Sydney games was difficult and exhausting. Yet the three-week Olympics, once they opened, took a turn toward the fun and exhilarating that no one expected.
In Beijing today, everything is going smoothly, according to the Chinese government. "Construction of major Olympic projects including the National Stadium and National Aquatics Centre are progressing smoothly and according to schedule while also satisfying quality guarantees," according to People's Daily, a leading Beijing newspaper.
Yet the excitement surrounding the 2001 announcement – a time when the entire city stopped in its tracks, and partied in a way it has not since – has ebbed for the moment. Old neighborhoods that were guaranteed to be saved, have been torn down. On May 30 the official state–run Xinhua news service reported only 11 "blue sky days" in the month of April. Between January and April there were only 51 blue sky days, the term of art for a generally clear and unpolluted day – compared with the year before when there were more than 60. China Daily noted that at this pace, Beijing may well miss the goal of 238 blue sky days it set prior to the Olympics. The blue sky goal for 2008 is 292. Corruption charges against construction and pork–barrel spending resulted in the firing last month of Beijing's vice-mayor, Liu Zhihua – who was pilloried for conducting a "decadent lifestyle."
Other jeremiads have appeared, urging the city and its inhabitants to become less rude and to stop belching, hacking, and spitting. "If we don't change our habits before 2008, the world will look down on China,'' said Zhou Shiji, a popular thinker and commentator and author of the bestselling "Doing Instead of Knowing."
Volunteers wearing uniforms emblazoned with the Chinese character for "mucus'' will hand out "spit bags'' to encourage "civilized spitting,'' said Zhang Huiguang, director of Beijing's Capital Ethical and Cultural Development Office.
"The Greeks successfully turned the 2004 Olympics into a real festival and earned respect from the whole world. If Beijing wishes to repeat that success, it has to start learning how to serve the people better, here and now," intoned the English language China Daily in a recent editorial.
"[Chinese authorities] are super self-confident they can handle anything," says Mr. Moses of People's University. "They look upon it as an opportunity to show they can handle any interest groups with a complaint."