“Will the Olympics Change China?”

Like other China specialists, I’ve been asked crystal-ball questions like this many times–even though the start of the Games on 8-8-08 (a date that many Chinese view as chock-full of lucky numbers) is still nearly a year away.

I’ve tried to dodge such questions, having good reason to worry about making predictions where China and the Olympics are concerned. After all, both the country and the event have often surprised us in the past.

Fifteen years ago, for example, many thought China’s Communist Party was on its last legs–and few imagined it would soon welcome capitalists into its ranks. Then, as an example of a failed Olympics prediction, consider the Los Angeles Times story that claimed Chinese excitement over sports had reached “such a pitch” that within a short time–“perhaps only a few Olympiads”–Beijing would be “the scene of the world’s Olympics.” Not a bad prediction, if it had been made in 1984 or even 1964. But the story ran July 20, 1914.

Still, the invitations to prognosticate aren’t likely to stop, so I’ve come up with an answer–or at least pretend to do so.

When people ask if the Olympics will change China, I say the tense is misleading. The Games already have changed it. To prepare for 2008, Beijing’s urban landscape has been transformed, as old neighborhoods have been destroyed, giant new sports arenas built and big countdown clocks set up to tick off the moments until the opening ceremonies start on August 8, 2008–at eight seconds after 8:08 pm, no less.

The Games have affected another Chinese city: Shanghai. When news broke that its rival, Beijing, had gotten the nod from the International Olympic Committee, Shanghai stepped up efforts to secure alternative markers of global prestige and got the go-ahead to host the 2010 World Expo. (In case the parallel with the Games wasn’t clear, local authorities took to calling the upcoming World’s Fair an “Economic Olympics”–and, yes, Shanghai got its own countdown clocks.

When I’m asked what I expect to see in 2008, I say that one thing I’m certain we’ll all see is lots of American media reports that use the Olympics to suggest either that China is changing rapidly and is on the verge of Americanization, or that China is a country that remains stuck in dangerous old ruts and could easily become a threat to all we hold dear. These predictions seem safe, since what I like to call “America’s China Dream” and “America’s China Nightmare”–two story lines that tend to distort, more than they shed light on, Chinese realities–have been circulating for decades. And they’ve already been easily adapted to sports coverage. Witness competing reports on basketball great Yao Ming, who is alternately celebrated for moving easily between East and West and presented as a Frankenstein’s monster-like creation of a Communist sports machine.

The scenarios of dream and nightmare have both gotten boosts from historical analogies. Some see Beijing 2008 as Seoul 1988, an event that could help liberate an authoritarian land. Others see it as Berlin 1936 with Chinese characteristics. My crystal ball tells me just one thing: Whatever happens, we will be surprised. The regime will strive to control matters, but the unexpected will occur.

I say this not just because of China’s prediction-defying track record, but also because many Olympics are remembered for things that weren’t supposed to happen. Yes, Hitler got more legitimacy than he deserved from the 1936 Games, but the stunning performance by a black American athlete, Jesse Owens, was not part of his Aryan-supremacy plan. And who expected Munich 1972 to be remembered for a massacre? The Mexico City Games of 1968 are remembered for the Black Power salute of two African-American runners, who were determined to draw attention to racism in the country for which they had just won medals.

It would be foolish to speculate about what sort of unplanned yet highly memorable event might happen during the Beijing Games. But you don’t need a crystal ball to know the sort that China’s leaders worry about most: a symbolic act of protest by a Chinese athlete or even a scene-stealing gesture of defiance by a spectator while the world’s gaze is fixed on Beijing. This is no idle fear, as there is a long list of issues–rampant official corruption, exploited workers, limits on freedom of speech and religion, etc.–to which a protester might want to direct attention.

The Olympics always provide a unique platform for the world’s finest athletes. The 2008 Games will also provide one for Hu Jintao and company in their ongoing quest to convince domestic audiences that they have made China great again; they seek to persuade international audiences that they are steering their country and its booming economy down the right path. But this platform can’t be controlled–and China’s leaders are shrewd enough to realize the risk of trying too hard to keep the unexpected from happening. Their hope of having the 2008 Games remembered as China’s great global coming-out party could crumble, not just as a consequence of protests but of ham-handed security measures that end in making the 2008 Games memorable less for their grandeur than for the tightly monitored nature of the proceedings.

The most interesting Olympic event to watch could turn out to be one not recognized by the International Olympic Committee: The tightrope-walk China’s leaders attempt when the global media are more focused on Beijing than they have been since 1989–a fateful year when, as we know and Hu Jintao knows too, international audiences were alternately inspired by images of youthful Chinese protesters and appalled those of menacing Chinese tanks.