When Mao Meets Youtube

You can always count on the Olympics for drama. Next summer's Games in Beijing will produce powerful stories and riveting television. But much of the action this time will occur outside the stadiums: in the streets, where Chinese police will clash with activists from around the world. These clashes promise to be spectacular and well documented—by protesters' camera phones, if not by professional news crews. Given that, the next Olympics will offer more than another opportunity to test the limits of human athletic performance. They will also test China's ability to thwart a nebulous swarm of foreign activists who will be well-armed with BlackBerrys. A police state organized according to 20th-century principles will meet 21st-century global politics; Mao will meet YouTube.

Like the athletes, the China's government and the activists from around the world are already training hard for the showdown. Beijing, which will spend a total of $40 billion on the Games, has, according to the Associated Press, already begun its "broadest intelligence-collection drive [ever] against foreign activist groups." Xinhua, China's official news agency, has reported that Zhou Yongkang, the minister of Public Security, has ordered the police next summer to "strictly guard against and strike hard at hostile forces at home and abroad."

Meanwhile, planning by these "hostile forces"—the activists—is well underway. A Prague-based nongovermental organization that calls itself Olympic Watch has been hard at work since 2001 crafting various ways to use the Games to challenge China's policies on freedom of speech, the death penalty, Tibet, religious freedom and forced-labor camps. Darfur campaigners have started using the term "Genocide Olympics" to pressure Beijing to stop supporting Sudan's government. And the recent upheaval in Burma has led some activists to coin the term "Saffron Olympics" in order to underline China's support for the murderous Burmese junta and its massacre of unknown numbers of saffron-clad monks.

Such efforts will only intensify as next summer approaches. Once the Games begin, a huge tide of foreigners will flood Beijing, making it extremely difficult for authorities to spot the activists among them—to pick out the old lady from Denmark who has traveled to Beijing with her church group to protest China's abortion policies, or the young, seemingly innocuous Australian couple who are actually members of a militant environmental organization.

It's fair to say that Beijing probably had no idea what it was getting into when it first applied to host the Olympics in 2000. After all, the world—and China's place in it—has changed substantially since then. Seven years ago, Chinese companies had not yet become such big investors in pariah states; it was only in 2004, for example, that China surpassed Iran to become Sudan's largest military supplier. China's environmental degradation was also far less of a global concern in the early years of this decade. The same goes for its cheap currency and its often hazardous consumer products. And China's aggressive trade practices have gained renewed scrutiny in recent years as the global economy has slowed down.

Another change in the intervening years has raised the stakes still further: the boom in Chinese cell-phone users, whose numbers have risen from 140 million in 2001 to more than 600 million today. As for Chinese Internet users, their ranks have soared dramatically—from 17 million in 2000 to 162 million today. Blogs, chat rooms, social networks and other online communities have all exploded. And YouTube, which didn't even exist three years ago (let alone in 2000) has amplified the dangers posed by Web-enabled camera phones to authoritarian regimes. No PR campaign will change this reality. China's government therefore cannot hope to keep the battles with protesters—if they occur—from being beamed around the world.

That said, Beijing does have one other option: it could agree to some of the protesters' demands. Indeed, slowly, modestly, China's government has already begun to do so. Beijing has, for example, finally begun nudging Sudan to accept international peacekeepers (including a Chinese contingent) in Darfur. That said, there is no way that Beijing will be able to come to terms with all the activists, many of whom seek to alter the very nature of the regime and the political and economic system on which it is based. It's therefore almost inevitable that China's leaders will ultimately opt for a crackdown. And it's all but guaranteed that China's centralized government—which is not used to confronting well-organized, media-savvy foreigners who work through highly decentralized, international, nongovernmental organizations that know how to mobilize public opinion—will find the experience profoundly frustrating. The 2008 Olympics, in other words, promise to provide a great spectacle. And the whole world will be watching.