As China hosts this year's Olympic Games, we asked Beijing-based journalist Christina Larson to file a series of dispatches giving us an on-the-ground perspective. She will be posting them here on The Plank over the next few weeks:

What are these ladies, two of Beijing's nearly 1 million Olympic "social volunteers," doing? Well, not much of anything--but that's beside the point. They're here, they're pumped, they have a purpose. During the Games, along the main roads, about every 50 meters, you can find groups of volunteers, usually two or three so they can socialize, sitting on stools and folding chairs sporting their new BOCOG red and white polo shirts. They are stationed, allegedly, to provide services to lost or confused visitors--but there aren't that many visitors to keep them busy, especially not on roads far from main Olympic venues. Mostly, they just sit here, occasionally stretching, fanning themselves, tugging at their collars. They aren't paid for their time, except in pride and Olympic garb. From the government's perspective, the real purpose, it seems, has been to give such people a purpose--think of it as a giant, Olympic-themed WPA program.
 
The Beijing Olympics has been often described in the western press as China's "coming out party," but with Beijing enforcing new media restrictions and even limitations on issuing business and tourist visas this summer (including denying some Olympic ticket-holders), it's clear that welcoming the world hasn't been the government's only--or perhaps even main--objective this summer.

While some foreigners have been ticked off and the international coverage has been mixed, the Chinese government has excelled at spreading around the love, publicity, and development money brought by the Olympics. I'm not arguing that the Olympics has suddenly cured all of China's social concerns--far from it--but rather that the government's bureaucratic gymnastics in stretching the moment, and the money, for all it's worth have made He Kexin look clumsy.

The swollen ranks of Olympic volunteers are one example. Another is the fact that there have been six "co-host" Olympic cities--that's seven cities total where new Olympic stadiums and other facilities have been built to host major competitions (in case you've been wondering why bylines about Olympic soccer have come from northeastern Shenyang, equestrian events from southern Hong Kong, and sailing from Qingdao). In some cases, the distance from Beijing is almost twice as far as that from Boston to New York. Now, it's certainly not convenient for spectators, athletes, or their handlers to shuttle back and forth between Beijing's Olympic Village and far-flung venues for no apparent practical reason--but, hey, this way all those cities got to share in the Olympic development boom and good publicity, some going from nowheresville to being name-checked by corporate sponsors and tourists around the world.

And then there was the long, long torch relay, which visited a handful of cities internationally (about 19), and then more than a hundred in mainland China--involving a total of 1,417 domestic torchbearers. Each one of those torchbearers went home with a memorial torch, happy memories, and photos. Although the relay leg is only as long as one lap around a high school football track, he or she feels really special. I know because I've heard their stories. I'm not even a longtime Beijinger, and I know fully three torchbearers. It's like one degree of separation. Meanwhile the government mandated that state media carry articles on each leg of the torch relay. In the inverse of censorship, it insisted on getting the "good news" out there.

The Chinese people are genuinely patriotic, even more so at this moment--and they deserve to be. The question now is to what end all this Olympic spirit and fuzzy national feelings will be directed. Certainly the impression the world takes away from China after these two weeks will be critical. That outcome remains to be seen. But here in Beijing, it seems the government and the party has already won a gold medal for hurdling Olympic tangibles and intangibles remarkably far. Just ask these ladies--hey, they'd be stoked for something to do.

--Christina Larson