Beneath the Surface, Something in the Air

Chinese paramilitary police officers march into National Stadium, known because of its design as the Bird's Nest.
Chinese paramilitary police officers march into National Stadium, known because of its design as the Bird's Nest. (By Oded Balilty -- Associated Press)
By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, August 3, 2008


You don't have to be here long to grasp the plot line of these Olympics. It's writ large everywhere. A few days give you the message. From the moment you land at Terminal 3 in the largest and perhaps most beautiful airport in the world, from the instant you glimpse the seminal, glowing-red "Bird's Nest" stadium and the translucent, heart-catching Water Cube, you know that China is about to knock the world's eyes out.

For 17 days starting Friday, viewers around the world, and millions here, will be riveted by what should be the most vividly spectacular and maniacally efficient Olympics ever organized. From the day in '01 when Beijing was awarded the Games, this has been conceived as the ultimate TV extravaganza and subliminal political infomercial. That's why NBC paid $2 billion to show it and China spent $40 billion to stage it.

That is one Olympics -- so visible that 4 billion will watch it.

However, there is another Olympics that no one will see because it is invisible, hidden, abstract. It is, rather, a contest of ideas, a comparison of systems, a contemplation of two versions of the future.

To pretend that these Games are primarily about the 100-meter dash, or an American swimmer who wants to win eight gold medals, or a glamorous Chinese hurdler would be incredibly obtuse. We can, and will, enjoy all that. But this month is about China. This Olympics will be remembered as a worldwide multi-week debate on the historic experiment that evolved by accident here over the past 25 years.

In that quarter century, China has improvised a hybrid political and economic system that the world has never before seen, at least not on such scale -- authoritarian capitalism.

The largest nation on earth has unexpectedly evolved to the point where it is capitalist in every practical sense, including an entrenched elite every bit as ruthless as America's robber barons. Yet China has kept its strict, one-party, often-thuggish Communist rule.

Here, the billionaires and the party bureaucrats are in bed together while human rights, freedom of the press, the environment -- make your own list of issues -- go by the boards. This stuns proponents of democracy, yet fascinates other nations that weigh what seems a devil's bargain between freedom or fortune.

"The West has assumed that capitalism must lead to democracy, that free markets inevitably result in free societies," Philip P. Pan wrote in "Out of Mao's Shadow." "But by embracing market reforms while continuing to restrict political freedom, China's Communist leaders have presided over an economic revolution without surrendering power."

From Darfur to Tibet to the pollution engulfing this city, we see the harsh implications. But in many other ways, which Olympic viewers will recognize at the most basic human level, this society has gone from poverty to boom times. Is the much-publicized, ever-growing list of Chinese billionaires, now up to 106 (measured in the Chinese currency known as RMB) simply a measure of an immature McMansion society that has wealth but not weight?

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