Wang Qishan may have imagined that he had foreseen every possible pitfall for the 2008 Olympics--but that was before the World Snooker Tournament came to town. As Beijing's mayor, he was shocked and embarrassed for his city by the boorish-ness of spectators at this year's China Open, the first world-championship snooker round ever held in the country. Snooker audiences are supposed to sit quietly and respect the players' concentration. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the crowd in Beijing. Cameras flashed. People jabbered on mobile phones. One memorable match was disrupted by loud snores. "It was a circus," one top player complained later. The horrified Wang called the risk of such an ill-bred display at the 2008 Games "a problem Beijing cannot afford to ignore."
The torch won't reach the city until Aug. 8, 2008, but pre-event jitters are rising already. Slobs in the stands are the least of Beijing's fears. What really unnerves China's leaders is the thought of mass unrest on live international TV. Chinese embassies around the world are already besieged by human-rights activists demanding big changes before the Games. Street demonstrations in China are practically everyday events lately, and activists are sure to get more feverish as 2008 approaches, bringing 30,000 international journalists to Beijing. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to push for [their] interests," says Carnegie Endowment China watcher Minxin Pei. No one wants a replay of Mexico City in 1968, when security forces opened fire on student protesters, killing at least 30 on the eve of the Games. China's leaders wish even less for anything like the 1988 Seoul Olympics: mass protests leading up to those Games ultimately helped force South Korea's military rulers to give way to a freely elected civilian government.
Chinese officials insist that a Seoul or a Mexico City can't happen in their coun-try, and grass-roots support for the Games is overwhelming. Even so, they confess, the idea has crossed their minds. Beijing's vice mayor, Liu Jingmin, says the leadership is ready for anything, including demonstrations. "We've researched all the problems that might arise," says Liu, who's also a member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, "and we'll solve them according to law." The upcoming Games haven't created any social problems that didn't already exist, he argues: "Society is moving forward. We're simply a boat in this big stream."
It's a whitewater ride. In a single week last month, a mob of protesters trashed shops and smashed windows at the Japanese Embassy, more than 1,500 military retirees staged a sit-in to demand better pensions and several hundred worried homeowners pressed an environmental lawsuit against the government. Those incidents were only in Beijing. In the wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang, tens of thousands of villagers rioted, torching 14 government cars and 40 buses. They were blaming local state-run chemical plants for poisoning their air, water and land, killing crops and causing birth defects and illness.
Prosperity and widening social freedoms have transformed China's attitudes. The frequency of collective acts of protest--though nothing like the 1989 Tiananmen unrest--has soared sixfold in the past decade. "It's kind of a push to democratize," says Jin Yuanpu of the Humanistic Olympic Research Center at People's University. People are less and less afraid to speak out against official corruption and bungling, and the run-up to 2008 has only encouraged such independent-mindedness. Liu says that when officials dreamed up catchphrases like "the green Olympics" and "the people's Olympics," no one guessed the public would take the words so deeply to heart. But many ordinary Chinese now believe they should have more say in how the place is run. "Their political sense is maturing," says Chen Gang, mayor of Beijing's Chaoyang district, where many of the 2008 events are to be held. "The Games are changing our society."
They're changing a lot else, too. Beijing is building nearly three dozen sports facilities and other Olympic venues, laying down some 4,000 miles of new road and creating the equivalent of 22 World Trade Centers in new housing. And for everything that's going up, something had to come down. Forced evictions and inadequate reimbursement for lost homes have provoked more protests in Beijing recently than any other grievance. Entire neighborhoods have been flattened overnight.
Now some of the capital's most downtrodden inhabitants have begun standing up for their rights. Two years ago hundreds of peasant homes and fields on the north side of Beijing were bulldozed to make way for Olympic landscaping and development projects. Li Xinyuan, 45, a dispossessed subsistence grower, says local authorities promised to provide new jobs but never delivered. He resigned himself to his rotten luck--until he saw China's prime minister on the news talking about farmers' losing their land. Li recalls his sudden realization: "Hey, I'm one of those farmers." His wife adds, "We were cheated." She has memorized applicable passages of the law. They can't afford a lawyer but are peppering the government with petitions for redress. Some of their friends now spend their unemployed days picketing outside the municipal offices. Zhou Shu-qin, 30, lost his house to a new Olympic park. "The Olympics are a good thing for a few people," he grumbles, "but not for the majority."
That remains a minority view that few Chinese would have dared utter in public until recently. Now a growing number is convinced that silence won't stop abuse. Ye Mingjun, 22, lived with his parents and relatives in Beijing's Yongdingmen area until their homes were demolished in 2003. Olympic planners had decided to rebuild an ancient city gate on the site. The family got some compensation, but not enough to replace their homes. Ye and his father, Ye Guozhu, ended up sleeping in a bicycle underpass at Beijing's glitzy Oriental Plaza shopping mall. Old Ye parked a pair of tricycle carts outside city-government headquarters, plastered with signs reading HOMELESS BECAUSE OF THE OLYMPICS.
Last August the elder Ye was arrested when he tried to bring together protesters from several provinces. The court convicted him of "disturbing social order" and sentenced him to four years in prison. "Without the Olympics, this wouldn't have happened to us," the son says. "We used to tell authorities, 'You always talk about "the people's Olympics," but why don't you help us?' "Nevertheless, he's looking forward to 2008. His father is due to go free in mid-July, just in time for the Games. "Once he's out, my father will start protesting again," the young man says. "I just know he will." Others won't wait until 2008.