What to Look For as the Olympics Kicks Off

The problem is that the People’s Republic has made enemies of many of its people in its six decades, and now some of them are using the Summer Games as a stage to air long-held grievances. The Uighurs, for instance, have periodically rebelled since they were reconquered by Mao Zedong immediately after seizing control of China. On Monday, two Turkic Muslims drove a truck into barracks in Kashgar, near the westernmost part of China, and, according to state media, killed 16 paramilitary troops while wounding 16 others. Despite the high toll, the assault appears to have been relatively unsophisticated. The prevailing belief among analysts, which appears correct, is that Uighur militants do not have the organizational ability to mount attacks on any of the sites in the seven cities where the athletic competitions will be held. That’s why they targeted a location far from the Games on Monday.

So how Chinese authorities react in the next two days will show how secure they feel. They are, of course, stepping up security in Kashgar and elsewhere in restive Xinjiang province. And it is not surprising that they are not taking chances at Olympic sites. “We have strengthened security in all Olympic venues and in the Olympic village,” said Sun Weide, a Chinese Olympic spokesman, on Monday. “We are well-prepared to deal with any kinds of threats.”

Yet Beijing, in its efforts to ensure absolute security, is considering almost everything a “threat.” Paramilitary police, for instance, beat two Japanese journalists in Kashgar and broke their equipment on Monday. That was an indication that the Beijing Olympic organizing committee was not serious late last month when its spokesman expressed regret for police roughing up Hong Kong reporters. The journalists were covering the chaos surrounding the sale of the last batch of Olympics tickets in Beijing and got caught up in events. There will undoubtedly be other occasions in the next few days when members of the press come up against police and other agents of the state, and the reaction of security officials will be telling. So far, it looks as if officials will continue to overreact. And if they do, we will know that Chinese officialdom, despite the supposed liberalizing influence of the Olympics, has not changed much over the years.

Yet China’s people have certainly changed. The third thing to watch for is what they do before Friday. This will speak volumes about Chinese society. The Games are taking place in a turbulent time in the country’s history. This December will mark the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the reform era. That’s three decades of almost unrelenting transformation. Today, there’s unimaginable societal change at unheard of speed thanks in large part to government-sponsored economic growth and social engineering. China, to say the least, is unsettled at this moment.

Beijing is in a sense unlucky to host the Games this particular year, scarred by natural disasters, large-scale protests, and acts of violence. Yet, apart from the earthquake that rocked Sichuan province in May, most of China’s problems this year are ultimately traceable back to the faults inherent in its political system. Actress Sharon Stone caused an uproar in China that month because she talked about the country’s bad karma, but even Chinese netizens said these events looked like punishments from Heaven. The notion that what goes around comes around is something that, on one level or another, most of us accept.

How the Chinese people react in the final days to the Olympics -- whether they show the world enthusiasm, boredom, or defiance -- will say much about how Chinese society will change once the Olympic flame is doused and the athletes and tourists go home.