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Eight Ain't Great

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Mao once purged the Chinese pursuit of superstitious practices and beliefs, including numerology. However, in using the date 8/8/08 for its biggest international event, the current government has instead embraced the way of the people and their beliefs, despite reservations about such ideas being unscientific.

Eight has traditionally been thought of as an auspicious number in Chinese culture since its pronunciation sounds similar to wealth.

Demonstrating the depth of number culture, in 2006 the New York Times' Jim Yardley wrote an astute piece about high-price auctions for lucky (and luxury) license plate numbers. He also mentioned the market for cell phone numbers with 8s.

Offices here likewise pay premium rates for locations on favorably numbered floors, and most high rises generally place an "H" where there would be a floor four or a fourteen -- numbers that sound like "death" or "is dead" with slightly different intonations. My own cell number was cheap because it's bursting with 4s. Chinese friends shudder when I give them my digits. Then I tell them about four leaf clovers, and they a little feel better. A little.

Given this propensity, it should come as no surprise then that a numbers conspiracy theory sweeping the nation has many feeling anxious about the Games. Here's how:

Event: 1/25 A blizzard slams the nation, including southern China. Millions are left without power and stranded in railway stations prior to the Chinese New Year holiday, the only time China's migrant workers can return home. Some Chinese die from illness or cold.

The math: 1+2+5=8

Event: 3/14 Day one of the Tibetan riots. Countless deaths incurred and international wrath and scorn for Chinese policy invoked.

The math: 3+1+4=8

Event: 5/12 The Great Sichuan Earthquake occurs at 2:28 pm. It kills more than 69,197 people and robs more than 5 million people of their homes, injures 374,176 and leaves others wondering about their 18,340 missing.

The math: 5+1+2=8; 88 days prior to the Olympics.

Event: 6/28 Tens of thousands of people take to the streets in a small provincial town in southwestern Guizhou province to protest local authorities' response to a teenage girl's death. After the 17-year-old was found in a river, a police investigation hastily concluded the girl had committed suicide. Allegations surface that the girl had been romantically linked to a cadre's relative, and many believe she had been raped and murdered. When the police refuse to look into the matter, rioters respond by setting fire to the police station. The Central Government sends in back up and scores of injuries result.

The math: 6+2=8 +8= 16 or two 8s, so 8/8.

Event: 7/1 In Shanghai's Zhabei district, 28-year-old Yang Jia lights three Molotov cocktails outside of a police station. When chaos ensues, he charges into the police station and stabs nine police officers and one security guard. Ultimately, six die from their wounds; all of the officers and the guard are unarmed during the incident. Yang claims it was a revenge killing for being falsely accused of stealing bicycles. Online message boards around the nation light up with the bold assertion that Yang was a hero doing what many others dared not but dreamed of doing. Others fire back that it is not a problem with the police but the rotten system that allows such gross abuses of justice.

The math: 7+1= 8

Now, once again the central government is trying to crack down on web sites getting people too worked up about the numbers; they're also insisting media organizations change the subject. All of this in the name of preserving social harmony -- a sort of mandate from heaven that some Chinese worry may cause local enforcement to pull the trigger too quickly, especially after July's incident when cops are particularly jumpy.

Same as it ever was -- in China, superstition isn't the scariest force at work. But, then again, neither is it the only idea that might be difficult to root out after 2008.