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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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They still made their runs. They still wasted fuel. They still clogged traffic. But nobody, in an activity as state-controlled and Communist Party-scrutinized as these Olympics, would deviate from the original plan, no matter how stupid it might be.

In decades at The Post, this is the first event I've covered at which I was certain that the main point of the exercise was to co-opt the Western media, including NBC, with a splendidly pretty, sparsely attended, completely controlled sports event inside a quasi-military compound. We had little alternative but to be a conduit for happy-Olympics, progressive-China propaganda. I suspect it worked.

Everything that met my eye at every venue was perfect. Everybody smiled. Everybody pretended to speak English. Until you got past "hello." Everyone was helpful until you went one inch past where you were supposed to go. Then, arms sprang out to stop you. Everywhere you went, even alone at 2 a.m., you felt completely safe. Because every hundred feet there were a pair of guards -- at attention in the middle of the night.

As sports spectacles go, I've never seen one more efficiently or soullessly executed than this one. I have no idea where they put the real people for 17 days, but I felt like Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show." Where's Ed Harris saying: "Truman is going to turn left on Main Street: Cue the smiling girl and the hearty hot dog vendor."

The family that's always perfect in public is the one you worry about. What's going on under the surface? The complete lack of dissent here -- not one person could get a permit to use the designated Olympic "protest area," though some were detained for trying -- has an eloquence of its own.

As for the Chinese people, I like them a lot. But they've been through so many purges and plagues, cultural revolutions and great leaps forward, followed by the whipsaw from socialism to "rich is good," that I think they're happy to toe the societal line. This decade, it's entrepreneurial capitalism -- hyper-boom phase. We'll see how they like the bust part. It's probably coming.

China has, by every account, made incredible material progress in the last 25 years. This city, merely one of several in China that now rivals New York and Los Angeles for size and wealth, isn't going to do anything but continue to grow. The 21st century will, no doubt, be a vast improvement on the last few awful ones here.

Nonetheless, I'll leave here more concerned about China's future, and its impact on those around it, than the future of the United States. Part of that is probably xenophobia, though I've spent a lifetime repeating, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Some of it, however, is my suspicion that the cycles of capitalism and the inflexibility of authoritarian regimes make for a spectacularly happy marriage in the virtuous-cycle good times, but perhaps an ugly partnership in the inevitable bad periods.

China got aboard the free-market love train at roughly the time -- in the early 1980s -- that worldwide capitalism hit one of its long secular hot streaks that frequently last 15 to 20 years. Money couldn't wait to invest itself here. Let's see how the Party enjoys its first secular bear market.

When political writers wander into sports, they often sound like rubes. The odds are high that I've merely flipped that script.

But if China were a stock, based on what I've seen and felt at this Olympics, I'd downgrade it from buy to hold.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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