They Made the Buses Run on Time

The 2008 Summer Olympics closed in a display of tightly scripted merriment and lavish fireworks, a final burst of pomp ending 17 days of sports and celebration that Chinese authorities organized with flawless precision and an unbending security clampdown.

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By Thomas Boswell
Monday, August 25, 2008

BEIJING

So, what did you think of China?

That's what we all ask any friend who's visited here. At the start of the 21st century, it may be the question Americans want answered the most. One ex-Post colleague is having his 3-year-old son learn Mandarin. The assumption: 1.3 billion Chinese will big-foot into any field they target. Their 51 gold medals in this Olympics, 15 ahead of the United States, are the latest evidence. (By my 25-15-10 scoring system for gold-silver-bronze medals, China won narrowly, 1,870-1,830.)

After four weeks here, a blink compared with real students of China, I have only impressions. But they are vivid.

At 3 a.m. on most Olympic nights, a bus with a few reporters would return to the Beijing Tibet Hotel. A dozen security officials met us to make sure we had credentials. During the day, knee-high tape outside the hotel created lanes for entering and exiting -- a reasonable way to keep things organized.

But in the middle of the night in a sleeping city, the tape was irrelevant. So, exhausted, we'd step over the tape and take the direct route to the front door. And every night the security people objected, insisting forcefully that we obey the stupid tape maze.

Finally, a Chinese solution was devised. Instead of stopping by the front door, our bus continued to the side of the hotel so, even though our walk was longer, the direct route now obeyed the tape.

Though we were the guests and they the hosts, we didn't matter. Common sense was irrelevant. The tape -- symbolic of a decision made by somebody somewhere in an unknowably complex and security-conscious control structure -- was all that mattered. They had uniforms. We didn't. That's big everywhere. It's huge here.

The current Chinese culture doesn't just reveal itself in the middle of the night. All day long, every 20 minutes (to the split second), hundreds of buses run back and forth from media hotels to the Olympic venues. There's even a special "Olympic lane" for all official traffic to the Games. Because the Chinese are obsessed with appearing efficient, the number, size and frequency of buses comically exceed the need. I often had a bus to myself.

However, I can barely believe what I saw Saturday when, by accident, I had to return to my hotel at 1 p.m., when almost no reporter has reason to leave the Olympics. Several football fields full of buses all pulled out simultaneously, headed to hotels all over Beijing, theoretically transporting media.

But I was the only rider on any bus I saw. Dozens were empty.


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