BEIJING — A year ago tonight, this sprawling, ancient capital erupted in elation. The International Olympic Committee had just awarded Beijing the 2008 Olympic Games, affirming for millions--if not billions--of Chinese the importance of China's place in the world, triggering a flag-waving, horn-honking, music-jamming, firecracker-exploding party in the streets.
Now, under a polluted sky, amid the never-ending clamor of construction crews, the heady scent of money seemingly in the air along with the dizzying stench of exhaust fumes and the unmistakable aroma of Kentucky Fried Chicken, authorities have launched the most ambitious program ever undertaken in preparation for an Olympic Games.
The Chinese have vowed to stage the best Olympic Games. They intend to spend $30 billion readying Beijing for 2008, far more than has been spent on any other Olympics. Their slogan: "New Beijing, Great Olympics."
Local and national officials intend to do the usual--build an Olympic stadium, an Olympic village and various sporting venues. But they also seek to use the Games as a catalyst to transform Beijing, improving and modernizing the city's roads, railroads, airports, telecommunications links and sewage systems and, they say, improving its environment. Beijing is already in the throes of a massive building program; the Games will accelerate matters dramatically.
Some experts even say the Games--in combination with China's admission to the World Trade Organization--represent an opportunity to bring about a dramatic turning point in Chinese history.
"From the evidence I've seen ... the government will use [the Games] to effect deeper political and social unity," said Thomas Breslin, a China scholar at Florida International University in Miami who spent two weeks this spring touring Beijing and eastern China.
"Getting ready for the Olympics, being an impressive host, an efficient host, will represent an opportunity somewhat similar to the great campaigns in previous regimes in China."
As an indicator of the social pressure already under way, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper recently launched a campaign urging the capital's men to keep their shirts on while outdoors, even in sweltering summer heat. The newspaper made it plain that it did so with 2008 in mind--that jelly-bellied, sweaty guys on parade in the streets did not offer the sort of image becoming an Olympic host city.
Observed Liu Jingmin, vice mayor of Beijing and executive vice president of the Beijing 2008 organizing committee, "It's like the 2008 Games are a boat. There is enthusiasm and hope inside the boat," meaning the relatively small circle of those directly involved now with Olympic preparations. But as time goes on, "everybody in Beijing, in society" will be urged to climb aboard.
Can it be done? Will it be done? How will it be done? And, perhaps most intriguing, should it be done in a nation with enduring human-rights concerns?
The International Olympic Committee answered the last of these questions last year, when it overwhelmingly voted to award the Games to Beijing, acknowledging but blunting the human-rights issue.
Concerns over human rights played a key role in sidetracking Beijing's 1993 bid for the 2000 Games.
Such concerns still simmer, with activists seeking to draw the IOC's attention to human-rights concerns.
Some have been clearly documented--as in the cases of 65 people executed on June 26 for drug crimes, many after public rallies where thousands watched judges condemn the accused. Chinese authorities have said they believe such executions serve as a deterrent. United Nations authorities have said they do not condone the practice.
Some have been less so--as was the case of a report, issued in May by U.S.-based Chinese democracy activists, not independently verified--alleging that police in northeastern China had already been told to get ready for the Games by targeting followers of the Falun Gong movement. Its followers say it is a meditation and exercise group; the government calls it a cult, and banned it in 1999.
The IOC says it is resolutely committed to holding the 2008 Games in Beijing.
"The Games will improve the [human-rights] situation," IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a recent interview. "I've said to the Chinese authorities, 'Please do your utter best to improve human rights.' I am convinced the Games will improve the situation. And we are going to work for that."
Rogge, a Belgian elected last July to an eight-year term, succeeding Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, has said repeatedly that the IOC will not monitor China's human-rights situation but will be in close contact with the United Nations and such rights groups as Amnesty International.