Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Chinese Failure I Predicted

As many of you know, I reported from Beijing in 2001-02. Among the most exciting experiences of my journalistic career, in fact, was filing the story I'm linking to here to USA Today on a cell phone from Tian'anmen Square the night the Chinese were awarded the 2008 Games.

That celebration was thrilling and my ability to describe it amid the pandemonium was a great moment in my life. That's me here with the Beijing Olympic sticker some Chinese woman insisted on putting on my face. God, I look young.

It was exciting, but it didn't mean I believed giving China the Olympics was smart. And as we round the corner to the realization of that moment -- as China reneges on its promises to allow greater civil liberties, to permit unfettered access to the foreign media and to improve its environmental record -- I returned to my archive.

Below is an op-ed piece I wrote that ran in six major U.S. papers in July 2001, including the Philadelphia Inquirer seven years ago today. It also appeared in the Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, Hartford Courant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Cleveland Plain Dealer.

I'm struck by how prescient I was. Not everything is accurate, but an awful lot of it.

Going for the Gold

By Steve Friess

BEIJING: Filthy air. Undrinkable water. Natives hocking wads of phlegm on the sidewalks. Roads crammed with incessantly honking cabbies who can't speak English and refuse to run their air on blistering summer days.

Sure sounds like a place to hold an Olympics.

For a moment, set aside the human-rights problems in the world's most populated nation. Forget about the Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Catholics, both of whom have seen the Communist regime take over their religions and install leaders of their own.

Ignore the fact that 150 million people live on the streets because, having been born in the countryside and being thus prohibited from ever living in the cities, they've flocked there anyway undocumented to find work.

And don't even mention the mowing down of the liberty-seeking thousands in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Old news. Get over it.

The International Olympic Committee did. And now, despite the obvious flaws that few can miss when they visit, the world will descend upon Beijing in 2008 for some good ol' apolitical athletic activities.

Yet, when the free champagne stops flowing and the local "media" return to their typical mouthpiece duties of bashing the United States and Japan, those who were swept up in rooting for this accomplishment may wake to the reality that this could be a huge fiasco.

The odds are this country will fail. Perhaps that's why the Bush administration and Congress opted not to actively oppose the Beijing bid in the end. If China does well, it will be because it spent the next seven years becoming more like America. If it doesn't, the world's only aspiring superpower will have vanquished itself, and the United States can rest on its laurels again.

There are many lovely people and places in Beijing. It is true that China is changing - rapidly and for the better. And the Chinese people are unfairly misunderstood across the globe, certainly by those who imagine an overt police state with soldiers on every corner.

But this remains a rugged place to visit, a place where people casually clear their throats onto the sidewalks. Where grubby children as young as 5 run amok at 2 a.m. outside the bars that cater to Westerners begging for morsels. Where sunrises and sunsets are impossible to see behind a sheen of smog that makes Los Angeles seem pristine.

It is a dirty, still unmodern town, not a place to go out in your fur and pearls. Heck, you can hardly even find a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Much has been made of the fact that China started preparing for the 2008 Olympics earlier than anybody else ever has, but it also has an awful lot to fix. This has to be the first time the IOC has awarded the Olympics to a place based on the entirely different city it promises to become from what it was when it was selected.

Seven years hardly seems enough time for the transformation Beijing claims to have in store. Yes, they've budgeted $22 billion for roads, facilities and environment efforts, which sounds like a lot, but this sprawling city has 13 million people in it - think Chicago times four - a healthy percentage of whom walk past mounds of decaying, unbagged trash in their alleys to get to their outhouse shower.

More than likely, China's answer will be to attempt the typical sleight-of-hand that got it this far. The IOC apparently didn't notice, for instance, that the government ordered a shutdown of all factories during its assessment visit in February, magically producing blue skies. It also painted the dead grass green outside the IOC hotels, giving off an unnaturally verdant image for a city then in the throes of a bitter winter.

The Olympics will be different. They can't shut down the factories for two whole weeks to clear the air. They can't send every cabbie to charm school. (Driving school should come first, anyway.) And, truth be told, they cannot fix traffic problems so that racing from a hotel at the center of town to the badminton competition will be pain-free.

It was heartening to witness the spontaneous, genuine celebrations in Tiananmen on decision night and to listen to the Chinese people rejoice that they've finally earned the respect of the world. China scholars and economists will say that China's entry into the World Trade Organization later this year will have a more significant, longer-lasting impact on the nation's future and place in the world.

But WTO entry won't stoke national pride like this, won't garner President Jiang Zemin, widely disliked by the average Chinese, the sort of adulation he enjoyed when waving from the veranda of the entrance to the Forbidden City that night.

Indeed, what is now heartening could turn heartbreaking. Neither the people nor their government has any idea what they're up against, the enormous risk they've taken, the price they could pay for humiliation in 2008. That said, look how far they've come in a dozen years.

On July 13, hundreds of thousands of people again assembled in Tiananmen and they declared this an historic moment, a moment of great progress. It was hard to disagree since there wasn't a single tank in sight.



Anonymous said...

Steve -

you were much better looking with the short hair. In fact, you were incredibly handsome that way. just a thought. the essay is interesting, too.

dan said...

wow, great story. i wonder if it's changed much since 01, pre 9/11. im sure they will shut down the factories for 2 weeks, i mean, these people do as they are told. sad.

Anonymous said...

I just saw a news report last night. Not only are they shutting down all the factories, but they're also running a massive campaign to teach people the proper etiquette of dealing with foreigners. If not charm school, I bet they're sending the cabbies to something similar.