When the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the 2008 Summer Games in July 2001, the announcement ignited wild celebrations across the country. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hoped to use the Games to showcase the country's emergence as a dynamic, modern nation. But as China's leaders begin final preparations for the Games next August, they may be wondering if hosting the event was such a good idea after all. They have significant reasons for doubt.
China's senior leaders always closely monitor spontaneous public expressions of nationalist fervor, fearful that shifting winds might blow an unwelcome storm in their direction. Of course what they hope is that the Games will channel these energies toward national solidarity, which will allow the leadership to deliver its people a moment of achievement and patriotic glory.
But the Olympics will also bring intense international scrutiny of China's weaknesses at a delicate moment in the country's development. The world already knows of China's success and its attractiveness as a destination for foreign investment, but few outsiders have seen firsthand the steep price the country is paying for its new prosperity.
The most obvious signs of that cost flow through the country's waterways and contaminate its air. Runaway growth and development have left about 70 percent of China's lakes and rivers severely polluted, many unfit for human use of any kind. Indeed, nearly a half-billion Chinese lack access to clean drinking water, and the number of terminally polluted rivers and lakes grows daily.
But air quality will prove the more embarrassing problem in August next year. Television coverage of athletes gasping for breath will hardly provide Beijing with the signature Olympic image it had in mind, and growing international anxiety over climate change and other environmental hazards will ensure that such issues receive considerable media coverage.
There is also the risk that the Games will become a political circus, as the international spotlight generates irresistible opportunities for public protest. The Chinese leadership has demonstrated many times that it can quell domestic dissent, but the unique scale of the Olympics will require round-the-clock vigilance.
Activists with grievances over Tibet, Taiwan, Myanmar, Darfur and dozens of other political, environmental and human rights issues are already making plans. Is China ready for Greenpeace, Human Rights in China, Amnesty International and Falun Gong supporters to take to the streets, with thousands of foreign journalists hungry for stories and asking questions that the authorities are unaccustomed to answering?
Even if police are able to maintain order in Beijing, can they extend that control across the country? Can they manage the flow of information and ideas through the blogosphere as online activists open yet another front in their battle for free information? What we do know that Chinese officials have never faced a challenge of this scale with such a potential to both win and lose face.
The Games will generate significant foreign-policy risks as well. In Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is stirring the independence pot, knowing that the Olympic spotlight will limit Beijing's ability to respond forcefully. He has already proposed a popular referendum on Taiwanese membership in the UN. China's influence within the UN would prevent such a move even if Taiwan voted yes, but an international confrontation is the last thing China wants coinciding with the Olympics.