“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.