Monday, August 13, 2007

In Beijing’s Games, a Vision of the Future

Published: August 14, 2007

“China Is Near.” This Italian film came out in 1967, using China as a symbol of the mysterious, the powerful, the future looming over everybody. Lately, that title has been looping across the movie screen of my mind.

The Olympic Games are always sponsored by one city, demonstrating Catalan pride or Australian culture to the world, but the Beijing Games will be a more cosmic harbinger of where the world is going in the next century or three.

Take pollution, for example. During the one-year-out ceremonies last week, a stinging mass of what could be vaguely described as air covered Beijing, much to the chagrin of the proud organizers.

No less an authority than Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, suggested that if the air was this bad next year the I.O.C. would reschedule certain endurance events for the health of the athletes. And he is a doctor.

We usually encounter gloom and doom before every Olympic Games, fears of terrorism or gridlock, but this time the dark cloud of pollution has already enveloped the Games. Starting Friday, Beijing is hoping to ban vehicles with odd-numbered license plates for two days and those with even-numbered plates for two other days.

With nearly 2.5 million private cars in Beijing, how will people get around? By special buses, authorities said. New Yorkers who have been doused with bus exhaust in our narrow canyons may already be laughing derisively. Good luck with that.

What will happen if determined drivers take to the roads on the wrong day? This is a nation of great resolve, which built the Great Wall and stifled dissent in Tiananmen Square, thousands of years apart. Will officers be flagging down uncooperative drivers and handing out tickets, or worse?

It is hard for an American to point a finger at any other society, given the way the United States has willfully produced pollution and ignored global warming. How China handles the choking reality of air pollution may be a tip-off on what kind of air the world will be breathing.

By committing itself to these Games inside its walls — drawing the inevitable attention of networks and newspapers — China has done something either mature or foolhardy. If there should be protests and violence, as there were in Mexico City before the 1968 Summer Games, there will be no cover-up this time. If dust storms fly in from the encroaching Gobi Desert, the world will know it.

Yet there is a tremendous upside to these Games: the exposure to modern China, including the Olympic architecture. Exactly one year from today, there will be four swimming finals in Beijing’s National Aquatics Center, nearly finished and already nicknamed the Water Cube because it looks like a square of sparkling water, instantly frozen, bubbles and all.

Next door is the main Olympic stadium, glowing a bright red and nicknamed the Bird’s Nest because of the steel twig-like prongs woven together. “To promote traditional feng shui balance between fire and water, the venues were placed side by side,” wrote John Powers of The Boston Globe, who recently visited Beijing.

China is near. As the most populous nation in the world, China is using these Games to build and advertise itself to the world. Everybody who has been to Beijing says the Chinese will be excellent hosts, providing water, air, food, accommodations, language skills and entertainment. This is too important to botch.

In a way, I have seen contemporary China. In the summer of 2002, I took a train from Seoul to cover the first game played by China in the soccer World Cup, in Kwangju, South Korea. As I settled into my first-class seat, I observed the pricey laptops, cellphones, sunglasses and sweaters and realized most of the passengers were youthful Chinese on vacation, taking in this historic match.

“You guys are yuppies,” I joked to the Chinese man next to me — a Web site developer, as I recall — who introduced me to a fashion journalist, a lawyer, an investment broker, males and females. This new generation will be helping to produce the Games next summer.

Meanwhile, old neighborhoods are being demolished, rivers are being rerouted, farmers are being moved into cities with revolutionary impact. While we are obsessing about the decimal points of track and field and the dreary gumshoe business of drug testing, a nation will be evolving.

I just read a marvelous new book, “Shadow of the Silk Road,” by Colin Thubron, a peripatetic British journalist who followed the ancient trading route during the SARS outbreak of 2003. Thubron is of my generation, speaks Mandarin, can find local transportation, lodging and food in obscure villages, starting in Xian and moving north and west, where borders and language and religion and pigmentation have shifted over the millennia.

One year out and counting, China is near. If we are lucky, we will capture a glimmer.



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