No task is too complex, no detail too small, for organizers of Beijing's gala coming-out party, the 2008 Summer Olympics. At first, some Chinese planners hoped to shift the timing of the Games to September 2008, when temperatures are cooler. Beijing in August is hot, steamy and oppressive—a concern to visiting athletes—and most flowers don't even bloom in the scorching heat.
But September was out of the question; it conflicted with scheduling commitments by NBC, which won broadcast rights to televise the Games in the United States. The Chinese settled on August, the eighth month of the year. "Besides, China likes the number eight," which many consider a lucky number, says Tu Mingde, a top-level official on Beijing's organizing committee for the Games. And so it was decided: at precisely 8 p.m., on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, Beijing will let the Games begin.
The regime's gardeners and horticulturists aren't leaving much to dumb luck, though. Even as Beijing's three dozen Olympic venues near completion, parks and green spaces also are popping up all over the city. But how do you get flowers to bloom when they don't normally want to?
Enter the Science and Technology Department of Beijing's Municipal Bureau of Parks and Forestation. Senior engineer Xu Jia says her department has already identified no fewer than 500 varieties of "Olympic plants" which have been discovered or bred to flourish in August. "Many experts questioned whether Beijing will be as beautiful as other Olympic host cities," she declared, clicking through image after image of multicolored flora on her desktop computer. "My answer is that Beijing is well prepared. We started long ago."
Indeed, city officials have orchestrated spectacular public floral displays for decades, often keeping hundreds of potted chrysanthemums under strict temperature controls (either hot or cold, depending) to ensure maximum bloom just in time for, say, a National Day military parade or a May Day tableau in Tiananmen Square. Such techniques have been fine-tuned since Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics. The regime's veteran "green thumbs" have imported many species—and experimented with hormone therapy, radiation, lighting controls, grafting, crossbreeding and finely calibrated pruning—to ensure glorious flora synchronized with the opening ceremony.
Some efforts are truly out of this world. Authorities have propelled seeds of lotus plants, purple jasmine and water lilies into orbit aboard Chinese satellites, to see what sort of extraterrestrial blooms result if they germinate in outer space. One answer: supersized mutant lotus plants, with flowers bigger than a soup bowl, which are now touted as "Space Lotuses" in a southern Beijing park. "We have many years of scientific experience," says Xu, who adds the government has imported from Britain and Germany a type of climbing rose that originated in China, but was developed into more beautiful blooming varieties overseas.
Beijing's pursuit of floral perfection in 2008 unfolds against the backdrop of a slow-motion environmental crisis. The North China plain, on which Beijing is located, has suffered from drought since 1998; rainfall that used to reach 600mm has dropped to less than 400mm a year. At the same time, industrial and residential water use is skyrocketing, yet water remains cheap and conservation efforts patchy. As a result, the desert is creeping closer to China's capital by a few kilometers a year.
Nonetheless, the city has imported grass, which requires half a ton of water per square meter per year to look its verdant best. "It wastes water, but it grows into a blanket of grass almost overnight," admits Xu. "Because we don't have much time to prepare for the Games, it's good to have this type of fast-growing grass." But elsewhere, she says, the city is opting for Beijing's native mossback grass, which can survive on natural rainfall. (The city's master-tinkerer gardeners are also, er, weeding out rude plants ill-suited for an urban environment, such as aggressively spreading torch trees and thorny bushes, which easily snag discarded plastic bags.)
City authorities have landscaped an additional 1.3 million square meters of land in the past year alone. To keep that acreage fed and watered, they're building new waste-water treatment plants, establishing rooftop gardens, tackling river pollution, and even trying to encourage birds and ladybugs to keep insect pests at bay. To make all that greenery look especially green—and skies especially blue—on Aug. 8, 2008, government meteorologists are trying to perfect the art of cloud-seeding to provoke rainfall on demand and dispel clouds. Ah, but that's a different story, and a different department, focused on the countdown to 2008.