Will China “Lose” the 2008 Olympics?

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 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% 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.