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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

A Pernicious Start for China's Olympic Year

May 26, 2008

Kathleen E. McLaughlin, Chronicle Foreign Service
The San Francisco Chronicle (page A-10)
May 21, 2008

Beijing -- This was supposed to have been a banner year for China,
culminating in the nation's first Olympic Games, which would showcase
its economic development, wealth, culture and sophistication.

Instead, 2008 has bounced from one tragedy and misstep to another,
including freak snowstorms, huge political protests in Tibet, a
killer earthquake, a train derailment and an infectious virus.

Such calamities have left many citing cautionary adages about balance
- that whenever things are meant to go really well, they can go just
as horribly wrong. As a result, many Chinese are eyeing the second
half of 2008 warily, wondering what could possibly happen next.

"There must be some impact on the people," said Xie Xioafei, a
psychology professor at Peking University. "So many big events will
have a strong psychological impact."

Yet Xie and other observers say the traumas of 2008 could bring the
Chinese people together, strengthening a national solidarity
bolstered by domestic press coverage that depicts Chinese leaders as
having a firm hand on the rudder as they navigate through each crisis.

"A tragedy like this really helps to pull people together," Dali
Yang, director of the East Asian Institute of the National University
of Singapore, said of China's reaction to the May 12 earthquake in
Sichuan province that has claimed at least 40,000 lives.

"People are very sympathetic. They have a profound sense of loss and
grief. To that extent, it can really help the nation," said Yang.

STOIC RESPONSE

China's state-controlled media has helped mobilize public sympathy
and national unity, devoting time, space and intensive reporting to
the earthquake. But Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst in
Beijing, said he has noticed more stoicism than despair among many Chinese.

"There's a sense that China can take it" said Moses. "There's no sort
of national therapy going on here. This is a strong, resilient and
proud people and they can weather this."

When 2008 opened with January snowstorms across southern China,
pessimistic predictions peppered the Internet. The worst snowstorms
in 50 years killed more than 100 people, brought traffic to a halt in
half of the country and stranded millions of Chinese New Year
passengers trying to get home for the most important family holiday
of the year.

The ensuing chaos caused $15 billion in direct losses and served as
an omen of worse things to come, some Web soothsayers said.

Initially, many criticized the government for its delay in reopening
roads and rail lines during the snowstorms. Although the bitterness
seems to have melted with the snows, an undercurrent of
disgruntlement over record-paced inflation - 8.5 percent in April -
and shaky financial markets has remained.

TIBET UPRISING

But for China's international image, the March 14 uprising in Tibet
has done the most damage. The protests across Tibet turned an intense
global spotlight on the nation's problematic human-rights record.

Beijing cracked down hard on Tibetans, with mass arrests and swift
closure of the region to journalists and tourists. While exiled
Tibetan leaders say 203 people died, China says it killed no one and
blamed Tibetan rioters for the deaths of 21 people.

The unrest in Tibet was followed by a public relations fiasco
concerning the Olympic torch relay - planned as the longest global
relay in the history of the Games. At most stops, the flame attracted
angry critics and intense debate over Tibet.

By the end of April, as the torch wrapped up its international leg, a
train derailed along the Beijing-Qingdao route planned to take
Olympic spectators to the sailing regatta in August. The train
smashed into a second train, killing 66 people.

Meanwhile, hand-foot-and-mouth disease (enterovirus 71), struck the
poverty-ridden Anhui province. As of last week, the virus had
sickened at least 25,000 children in seven Chinese provinces plus
Beijing and killed 43, according to the state-run Xinhua New Agency.

LUCKY 8

China's Olympics have been carefully planned to begin around the
lucky number eight. Ba, or eight in Chinese, sounds similar to the
word for wealth. The Games open on Aug. 8, 2008, at 8 p.m.

But exactly 88 days before the Games are expected to begin, the
largest earthquake to hit China in three decades struck Sichuan
province. By Tuesday, the death toll reached more than 40,000, and
the government estimates the figure could climb to as many as 50,000 people.

At the highest levels, the government has sought to reassure
survivors of the quake, and the rest of the country, that it will
spare no effort in rescue and rebuilding. Both Premier Wen Jiabao and
President Hu Jintao have visited the region.

Yang of Singapore's East Asian Institute says the quake could lead to
positive changes, like stricter building codes for schools and better
safety measures. While the Communist Party of China has extolled its
own virtues throughout the week, he said, "I think they are learning
some lessons."
It all adds up to ...

Yet skepticism in superstitious China remains, largely among many
youths who don't remember the Cultural Revolution or the hardships of
past years.

On the widely used QQ Web chat service, a popular post has been
widely circulated in which the author describes how the month and day
of each traumatic event equals eight. The Jan. 25 snowstorm, for
example, is 1+2+5=8. The same for Tibet's uprising on March 14
(3+1+4=8) and the May 12 earthquake (5+1+2=8).

His conclusion when adding up the three events: 8-8-08 - the day of
the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
Focus on China

This story is part of a series exploring the changes that China's
first Olympic Games are bringing to Beijing and the rest of the
nation. To read the other installments, go to sfgate.com/ZCUV.

E-mail Kathleen E. McLaughlin at foreign@sfchronicle.com.
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