What to Look For as the Olympics Kicks Off

The Summer Olympics, a 17-day extravaganza, begins in Beijing on Friday. There is a torrent of news about the event, so it’s hard to know what to look for -- and what to ignore -- as we try to figure out what’s really going on. There are three things to pay special attention to in the next two days.

The first is the reaction of Chinese officials themselves. There is a new hint of caution in government statements about the Olympics. This seems to say that, even at this late date, senior leaders still do not know how the event will turn out. It’s perhaps telling that Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and the official in charge of the Games, appears to be assuming a low profile. And his most important pronouncement on the topic sets a low bar by which the Olympics -- and he -- will be judged by his Communist Party comrades: “A safe Olympics is the premise for a first-class Games with Chinese characteristics,” he said last month. “Safety is our top concern here.”

And this brings us to the second thing to look for: the government’s use of repression in the last days before the flame is lit in Beijing. Xi’s statement on staging a safe Olympics has, for better or worse, set the official tone in the run-up to the opening ceremony. China watchers had always expected tight security for the event, but Chinese central officials have gone far beyond what any observer thought they might do. The Beijing government, for starters, has denied visas to businessmen, backpackers, and middle-aged tourists holding Olympics tickets.

Moreover, the central government has also ejected long-term foreign residents and canceled long-planned events involving foreign participants. Chinese citizens have been removed from Beijing, and many of them have been prevented from traveling there. The capital is now guarded by three rings of checkpoints and over 400,000 troops, police, and volunteers. Children cannot fly model planes, real pilots cannot quit or change their jobs, and dissidents have been forced to take “holidays.” Spectators at the Games are not permitted to stand up in their seats. The only thing Chinese leaders have not done is declare martial law; but, even if they did, it’s not clear that things would be much different than they are at this tense moment. The Games are supposed to be a joyous celebratory event, but the unprecedented clampdown means they have become the “No-Fun Olympics.”