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China swats at latest threat to perfect Games

July 03, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — First there was the freak snowstorm in February. Then the Tibetan riots in March. Then in rapid succession the controversial torch relay, Sichuan earthquake, widespread flooding and an algae bloom that's tarnishing the Olympic sailing venue. Just when it seemed that nothing else could go wrong this year in China, the locusts arrived.

Locusts? What is going on here? The litany of near-biblical woes would seem to lack only a famine, frogs and smiting of the first born.

The Middle Kingdom's parade of problems has threatened to put a major damper on China's anticipated moment of glory less than five weeks before the start of the 2008 Beijing Games.

"This sure has been a weird year," said Ma Zhijie, 20, who works in a coffee shop. "There are so many disasters, it's hard to know what's happening."

Authorities have been working overtime to tackle, contain and spin their way out of each new setback. But the volume of calamities this year would challenge any government, let alone one that has staked so much on pulling off the perfect Olympic Games.

This week, China sent out an all-points bulletin for exterminators. About 33,000 professional pest killers were quickly dispatched to Inner Mongolia in hope of preventing a cloud of locusts from descending on Beijing during the Games.

The vermin apparently hatched a month early because of warmer-than-usual weather and already have eaten their way through 3.2 million acres of grassland in three areas of the countryside. With the capital only a few hundred miles away and the Chinese leadership in no mood to take chances, about 200 tons of pesticide, 100,000 sprayers and four aircraft have been thrown into this battle against the bugs.

"To ensure a smooth Olympic Games and stable agricultural production, we have launched a full prevention plan to prevent and control further locust migration," Bao Xiang, head of the badly hit Xilingol League grassland work station, told the state-run New China News Agency.

Though China's response to some of the year's crises was sluggish, by the time the magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck Sichuan province in May the government was able to mount a rapid and effective response.

"All the disasters this year have certainly given the government lots of practice at crisis management," said Peng Zongchao, a public policy professor at Beijing's Qinghua University. "Some have been natural, some man-made, some related to health, some to social security."

China is no stranger to disasters, natural or man-made. But such a series of woes in this high-profile year has fanned rumors and superstition in a nation where people pay huge sums for lucky license plate numbers and feng shui consultants are in high demand.

China has sought to bank as much good luck as possible before the Olympics next month. The opening ceremony begins at 8:08 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. Eight is considered a lucky number by the Chinese because in Mandarin the number sounds like the word for "prosperity."

Also, the government built the Olympic Village on a meridian directly north of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, consistent with Beijing's core feng shui principles.

These supplications to the gods of fortune by an officially atheist Communist government, however, apparently weren't enough. This year has also seen sharply rising prices, a falling stock market, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and a major train collision.

The killing of six policemen in Shanghai this week and a riot involving as many as 30,000 people in Guizhou province, southwest of Beijing, after the mysterious death of a high school girl have raised fears of more problems.

For the leaders, this bad patch is more than something to shake their heads over. The nation's 5,000-year history is littered with dynasties that collapsed because the population believed leaders had lost the "mandate of heaven."

Among the Internet search terms restricted in recent months include those linking the earthquake to the curse of heaven, "the anger by the heaven" or the change of dynasty.

"There's no such thing as luck, these are just natural disasters," said Zhao Shu, a researcher in the Beijing Literature and Historical Research Institute. "These rumors will be disproved over time."

But some say the government may share the blame.

"Officials have picked up stones to hit their own feet," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing, citing a Chinese proverb. "Even as they decry rumors and superstition surrounding all this bad news, they laid the groundwork with their focus on 8s and by calling the Olympic torch a sacred flame. Now common people are throwing it back at them."

Some rumormongers say that the three numbers of the date of the earthquake, 5/12, add up to eight, which evokes prosperity, but it also sounds like the word for "handcuffs."

Internet postings have even started linking the five Chinese Olympic mascots, known as fuwa or "friendly children," to inauspicious events:

Beibei, a blue fish-like creature, is linked to June floods in the south that killed 176 people and affected 43 million.

Jingjing, who resembles a panda, represents the quake that killed at least 85,000 in Sichuan, where most pandas live.

Yingying, a Tibetan antelope, is tied to the unrest in Lhasa, the capital of the mountainous region.

Flame-headed Huanhuan is linked to the torch protests.

And Nini, a swallow with a headdress that looks like a kite, is said to represent a major train crash in April in an eastern city known for its kites.

"What can you do," said Liu Feng, 39, a salesman. "Some people are superstitious and some are not. China always has disasters"

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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