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.