- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2001

BEIJING — When you get here, your head will explode," my wife said. She was right. Five minutes from the airport, I was in a "Blade Runner" set of neon-lit skyscrapers topped with Jetsons and Euro-concession-era flourishes. The city center, I thought but the expressway revealed a vast skyline of coral building blocks ahead, laundry clinging to them like seaweed. One could feel the economic energy of 20 million people modern hotels, hospitals and shopping centers linked by an efficient metro and two international airports. Later, atop the third-tallest television tower on the planet, I surveyed a promoter's dream and imagined an Olympic village astride one of the world's most romantic rivers, a conduit for vessels from sampans to destroyers.

Thinking about it from the standpoint of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), I was in China's clear-and-away choice for 2008: Shanghai. China, the way it ought to be.

The drive from Beijing's airport begins with a series of billboards Lucent, Motorola and Siemens symbols of corporate intent rising above rows of scrub trees. Behind these dust-catchers for Mongolian sandstorms loom patches of concrete apartment blocks, resembling a once-great city rebuilding after massive carpet-bombing. Then totalitarian chic takes over: gaudily painted mixmasters, vast pyramid complexes with bombastic titles International Oriental Cultural Exchange Trade Center, Chain City, Global Hypermarket Plaza. Paramilitary guards signal points of interest; princeling drive-ins, sterile foreigner compounds, pedestrian subways-cum-bomb shelters, and warehouse sex clubs with names like "Success." Poverty and crudeness recently even a potential malaria outbreak lurk along the unpoliced edges, like the jungle encroaching upon the crumbling squares of Brasilia. Yet I love Beijing's wild-wild-east neighborhoods, its easy humor, its political intrigue and corruption.

Clearly Beijing's Olympic candidacy is a strange gamble. A well-connected source says China's top brass rejected Shanghai simply because it isn't the capital, so its candidacy would mean a loss of face for the Chinese political system. Or maybe it's just that real power means making people do something they don't want to do. Who in the world wants to pay tribute to a country that leads the world in executions a cool 1,781 in three months?

The Chinese leaders smell fear in the IOC's studied disinterest in human rights. So does Rep. Tom Lantos, as he analogizes Beijing 2008 to Berlin 1936. But the Chinese leadership can depend on cooler heads, and foreigners are subtly encouraged to whisper that a Beijing Olympics will buy peace in the Taiwan Straits for seven years.

Yet the seven years in question refer not just to the 2008 Olympics, but to the mainland Chinese timetable for Taiwan. Jiang Zemin has declared his determination to resolve the Taiwan question before 2007, when Mr. Jiang relinquishes control over the Central Military Commission. So 2006, give or take a year, is Taiwan's red zone. This explicit threat invites a more salient comparison to the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, which never occurred. By 1939, many athletes were in uniform, competing with Japanese imperial ambitions in the arena of war.

The IOC may downplay politics, human rights and Chinese expansionism, but Beijing failed in 1990 partly over pollution, and it's worse now. The Chinese leadership knew all along that they could lose the bid. So what is their exit strategy should their 2008 bid fail? A clue lies in the northwest corner of Beijing, in the ruins of the old Summer Palace, the Yuanmingyuan, torched by British and French allied forces at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. Foreigners don't often visit, but even in the dead of winter, the Chinese flock to have their picture taken beside the rubble of an 18th century Occidentalist fantasy. An explanatory sign reads clearly in Chinese and English: "This is a monument of national humiliation."

A week ago, the "Three Tenors" concert, a dress rehearsal for the Beijing Olympics, was held in the Forbidden City. A moment of Chinese triumph, but the foreign press reported a discordant note; the Chinese police beat up an American photographer who briefly photographed the police manhandling a Chinese citizen. This police behavior is quite routine. But consider the 100 or so Chinese who gathered round. They didn't ask the police what the American had done, or call for restraint. Instead they screamed " America," and encouraged the police to beat the American very badly. When I asked him how it ended, his voice shook a bit; the police forced him to stand before the mob and apologize.

The Chinese government's exit strategy was formed in the riots after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, in the declaration of Wang Wei as a revolutionary martyr in the recent EP-3 crisis and in the reconstruction of the 1860 loss as a national humiliation. Chinese society has been Pavlov-trained to enjoy national humiliation, because it enjoys the state-sanctioned cleansing rage that follows. So whichever way it goes tomorrow, China won't lose.

Ethan Gutmann is a government-relations consultant in Beijing, China.

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