Moving Heaven and Earth
Does the number 8 portend disaster after Beijing's Olympic glory?
Who, other than heaven, dares to rain on Beijing's Olympic parade?
Beijing's measures to safeguard a "safe" Olympic Games have been astounding. Take the Chinese understanding of the three cosmic elements — heaven, earth and human beings; the Chinese regime seems to have had a firm grip of both the earth and human elements for the Olympics.
The largest "earth" element for the Beijing Olympics is air quality. In the last few years, the government has spent $17 billion on pollution control for the Games, including eliminating small coal-fired burners and moving out polluting factories such as Capital Steel. Prior to the Olympic Games, Beijing had closed hundreds of factories in neighboring provinces, halted major construction sites and forced more than a million cars off the street using odd-even plate numbers. On the day of the Olympic opening, another million cars were taken off the road.
The "human" element is more challenging, but not uncontrollable by the authoritarian regime. A year ago, the government started to arrest more dissidents, human rights activists and Falun Gong practitioners. An Olympic security plan from Miyun, a suburban county in Beijing, betrays a network of strict monitoring and surveillance targeting Falun Gong practitioners, foreigners, Uighur Muslim nationals, petitioners to the government and other public security targets. Beijing has been put under a semi-martial law, and residents are encouraged to stay home during the Games so as to leave the city uncrowded for visitors.
The picture-pretty Beijing, with sky less gray (although not quite blue) and missiles installed to counter human disturbances, has one more element to contend with: heaven.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), atheist with all its trust placed in the power of the people, or more precisely, in its own authority, cannot completely escape the grip of "heaven" that still appeals to the Chinese. The time of the Games' opening, at 8:08 p.m. Aug. 8, was chosen for the auspicious number eight, which is believed to be a heavenly sign of prosperity and safety. If all goes smoothly, the Olympic Games are to boost the party's soft power in the world and strengthen its legitimacy inside China.
It is with the auspicious "8" that heaven seems to be casting unsettling signs. Beginning in January, China has had to deal with major disasters, both humanly made and heavenly initiated. China's worst snow disaster of 50 years started on Jan. 25, cutting off electricity in major cities and stalling travelers returning home for the Chinese New Year. On March 14, a crackdown on protests by Tibetan Buddhist monks in Lhasa unleashed a new wave of international outcry against China's human rights abuses, leaving the Chinese regime morally weakened leading up to the Games. Then on May 12, the 8.0-magnitude earthquake took place in Sichuan, killing 87,625 and injuring 374,171, burying thousands of children under low-quality school buildings.
Interestingly, adding all the digits of the dates marking these disasters, 1/25, 3/14 and 5/12, yields the number "8" (e.g., 5/12: 5+1+2=8). If this is not unnerving enough, Chinese blogs and Web sites have also noted that the earthquake on May 12 was 88 days from the Olympics. Could heaven be turning its tide? Many Chinese started to whisper, even as their blog entries are erased as soon as they are posted, what could this mean for the Beijing Olympics?
The uneasiness with the "coincidence" of numbers comes from the Chinese traditional understanding that disasters serve as heavenly signs. In imperial China, emperors considered themselves "sons of heaven" and believed that only by abiding by heavenly laws could they rule. When major disaster happened, the emperor was to inspect himself for moral inadequacies, invite criticisms and pardon criminals. The Chinese regime, one cannot fail to note, has done just the opposite by arresting more people before the Olympics.
This understanding of disaster betrays the notion of the unity of heaven and man (tian ren he yi) that is deeply rooted in the traditional Chinese thoughts of Confucianism and Taoism. Earthquakes are among the disasters that bear such importance as heavenly signs. The Tangshan earthquake of 7.8 scale in 1976, killing 240,000 and foreshadowing the fall of the Mao's regime, gives the Chinese pause for the implications of this year's Sichuan quake.
All this contemplation of "heavenly signs" also came at a time when some overseas Chinese Web sites had posted predictions that heaven is to eliminate the CCP for its wrongdoings, including the killing of 80 million Chinese. The prediction has led millions of Chinese to declare their separation from the CCP — most using aliases for fear of punishment in China.
Numbers and disasters have only gained meaning when in reality there are good reasons to be concerned. While China's economy has grown rapidly, the social and environmental cost has been tremendous. The regime's corruption and tight control over the Chinese people have led to widespread discontent and protests, which have only been kept at bay by heavy pressure by the regime in the name of "development" and "harmony."
Now the Olympic Games have offered the CCP an occasion to place more heavy weights onto the pressure cooker that is China. How will the tension manifest during and after the Beijing Olympics?
Back to heaven. Will heaven rain on Beijing's Olympic parade? I am watching anxiously as the Olympics proceed and this Olympic year 2008 passes. Whatever fate that heaven has in store for the Chinese Communist Party, I pray that the Games go smoothly, that the Chinese people will be safe and the Chinese nation will prosper.
Hong Jiang is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, teaching courses on cultural geography and China. Her research specialty is China's environmental issues. She was born in China and lived in Beijing for 10 years.