Everything changes tomorrow

This is the view at 10am, July 19, 2008, with 20 days to go until the Olympic opening ceremonies. Not that bad! And everything changes tomorrow.

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Tomorrow the even-odd license plate rules go into effect to cut car traffic in Beijing. Three long-awaited subway lines (are supposed to) open. Factories are shut down in the neighboring provinces. Construction projects in the city (are supposed to) stop. And new extra-tight security measures go into effect at the airport, on the subways, in public places, just about everywhere. I'm going to the airport tomorrow afternoon and will leave plenty of time.

On whether the environmental rules will bring clear skies for the games themselves, I remain optimistic. By the time I get back in a week, I really do expect a different vista.

That is different from saying that the Olympics will make a longer-term difference in Beijing's horrendous air-quality situation. On the evidence so far you'd have to say they won't, since the steps starting tomorrow are so obviously on a last-minute emergency basis.

Other last-minute notes:

- A few days ago, lunch with a group of professional-class Chinese friends at a software company. I ask what they think about the Olympics.Several of them mention, in a "of course this is common knowledge" fashion, that the government security teams have already been finding and removing bombs that terrorist teams were sneaking into the airport, the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium, and other important venues.

The point is the "nation under siege" mentality that Americans are so familiar with from their own domestic politics these last seven years. If the terrorist threat is assumed to be everywhere -- and for China, it's assumed mainly to come from Uighur separatists in the northwest, plus perhaps outsiders unhappy with the Tibet policy -- then citizens will support the government doing whatever it takes to keep the nation safe. It would be rich to hear the Bush Administration dare criticize the Chinese for this approach.

- Talk with some other Chinese professionals, whose business involves sending out a lot of instant text messages (SMS) on mobile phones. These short messages often seem to be China's main communication systems. People rely far less on email than in America; I rarely see someone with a Blackberry; but everyone has a mobile phone, and sending messages is much cheaper than talking.

As of tomorrow -- I was told -- new limits will apply on how many messages can be sent from each phone each hour. The limits are high enough that they won't affect ordinary users but would make it harder to send a mass broadcast. I wondered what the reason could be. Trying to keep the airwaves free for important Olympic business? Saving the Chinese public from the "Google is making us stoopid" constant-distraction problem? Or something?

Once they explained, it was obvious. Short messages are the main way people can react to news in a hurry -- or organize actions in response. If you want to hold a meeting or rally or just get a lot of people to the same place at the same time, SMS is the way to go. So if you limit SMS, you've cut the main communication tool for individuals trying to act as a group.

- This week I saw a company rushing to move into half-completed office space by this weekend. The floors were still bare concrete at the new site, wires were hanging everywhere, carpenters were whacking away at doorframes. Why the rush? On the big day, July 20, not only is outdoor construction banned but also any changes in internal wiring or telecom connections, spray-painting, etc.  The outdoor construction ban makes sense as part of the emergency air-cleaning measures. No more wiring changes? A security measure? I don't know.

- Three recent reports from friends who've arrived through the new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport with no bottlenecks, snarls, or long delays at passport or baggage lines. Good! We are ready!

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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