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China syndrome
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You never know how things are going to turn out.

A few weeks ago it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Beijing Olympics would be overshadowed by controversy, whether having to do with the host country’s hideous human rights record or its equally hideous disregard for its own and the world’s environment.

Fast forward. The 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony was by far the most watched in history — and by some accounts the most amazing single live performance in history. The Chinese are such a gracious people that they cheered the American basketball team — while the Americans were whipping the Chinese team’s collective butt. Meanwhile, you hear nothing about pollution, only about competition.

And it turns out that Russia, not China, showed the lower regard for human rights with its massacre of innocent, largely pro-American civilians in Georgia, while President Bush impotently goofed around with athletes at the beach volleyball arena.

Yep, you just never know how things will turn out.

But the thing that has struck me the most about these Olympics — besides Michael Phelps’ almost literally superhuman abilities in the water — is the impressive modernity and sheer scale of things in China, which in some cases dwarfs anything the West seems capable of now.

Yeah, I know: It’s intended to strike me like that. It’s propaganda. It’s a dog-and-pony show by a totalitarian government. Of course it is.

Still, there’s no denying the chilling effect of realizing that a nation comprising one-fifth of all humanity is no longer the rural backwater our school textbooks portrayed it as. The scenes of modern architecture and rapidly liberalizing city life in Beijing would not have been out of place in Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, or Berlin, and in many cases made even large American cities seem like — well, like backwaters.

So while some of the fireworks at the opening ceremonies may have been “digitally enhanced,” i.e., faked, and the cute little girl who sang was really lip-synching, and we can’t really know what’s going on because all the journalists are censored — there’s no denying that another torch has been passed, one besides just the Olympic torch.