10/18/2007 03:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

China Watch : It's All Different Again

It's 7.30 am. There's a 3 mile traffic jam outside my apartment. That means an

hour and a half to get downtown. Your eyes are tearing and you already have the

itchy smog throat. Wanna call in sick?

This might be New York, LA or Atlanta. But we're in Beijing, where the

red digital countdown clocks at the main intersections spell out the days, hours

and minutes before the Summer Games begin on August 8, 2008. Squint through the

grey mist and you'll see a woven steel apparition arising from nowhere. It's

the 91,000 seat Olympic stadium, the Birds Nest. Eighteen months ago I

couldn't find a single shovel of overturned Olympic dirt. Now I'm told about 90%

of the facilities are done.

That's China. One day nothing. Then everything. It's a movie set with a

billion extras. I'm a new and old guy here. I arrived Septtember 13 as a visiting

professor of journalism at Tsinghua University. But as a BusinessWeek writer and

editor I'd been hoofing it to China for two decades, making pit stops in all the

main cities and sitting through more smoke-filled interviews with top officials

than I want to remember. I'd edited at least 50 cover stories on China, the

first in 1984. I'd watched olive drab turn into pressed chinos, Pradas replace

black work shoes, lipstick and mascara become universal in all the big cities.

I'd seen small cars replace bicycles and Audis and Buicks replace small cars and

more ring roads and new subways stops that I could count. I thought I had at

least a half grip on the place. But I didn't. Each time I'd come home from a

trip and my wife would ask, what's China like and I'd say, "I can't describe

it, it's all different again"

It's even more so now. Change this unrelenting erases perspective so you

go with the flow. Today, Beijing is an Olympic Village. The final cutting,

fitting and pasting -- completing a subway line, building two new access

highways, finishing the Marathon route through my campus and training up to 4

million English speaking greeters for the tourist crush will be the easy part.

Air quality is trickier. The government is experimenting with ionized

cloud seeding rockets to keep a low ceiling smog layer away from the city. The

last charcoal burning hutong -- a worker neighborhood of squat grey brick

dwellings next to Tianammen Square is under the final wrecking ball. Odd and

even license plate driving days to cut pollution are getting a tryout. Most

furnaces at China's thrd largest steelmaker, the Capital Iron and Steel plant

near the city proper, will be banked during the Games. With this level of command

and control managing even the air could be doable.

But what to do about the international press? NBC Sports is not the

problem. With a $1 billion Olympic contract, the GE network guys are here to

show great games and have 3.000 folks on the ground to make it happen. The news

division will bring in another team to do Olympics-related stories for the

Nightly News with Brian Williams. They're probably not looking for trouble.

But then there is everyone else, from print to online to blogs.

Beijing's leaders want the Olympics to showcase a new nation to the world.

So the government has Western academics and PR consultants addressing seminars

across China to explain the "foreign media". But in a nation where all press is

government controlled and reporters get cash envelopes for showing up at news

conferences, it may be that no amount of seminar schmoozing can overcome what is

still called an understanding rather than a values gap. The students get it.

They call it soft power. But I'm not sure anyone with rank does.