BEIJING — Eight is a lucky number in China. Despite that fact, the NBC News bureau is not on the 8th floor of our office building. Nor is our office laid out in octagonal fashion, just some desks really. We have eaten no octopus at some of the formal rural dinners we've attended which are often punctuated by “Fear Factor”- type food. And I like the taste of V-8, but I don't think I drank it last year.
Despite all of that, when I wrote my predictions for 2007 this time last year, I think that by proximity — living in the country which will stage the Olympic games starting on lucky 8/08/08 — we got lucky ourselves. Here's my list "What to watch in 2007" and how things actually turned out.
China wants to be a world player and with that comes with a catch: it has to play nice with other countries. Look for more pressure from the West on China to welcome more imports, crack down more on piracy and speed up financial reform. We are likely to see some movement from China along with the centuries-old admonition to outsiders: “You guys don’t really understand us.”
China did move towards financial reforms as we predicted with various steps including slightly raising the value of its currency. In broad strokes, that will make the U.S. trade deficit with China a bit smaller. In real terms, in the case of the Mullen family vehicle, it means I pay about $30 more a month to lease my very uncool mini-van than I did last year because the US dollar is not worth as much (or because China's currency is worth more).
Wait, they’re not until 2008. No matter. While other host Olympic host cities have wet paint as athletes arrive, look for China to have many of the game venues constructed more than a year before the torch arrives.
In fact, in this country where people joke the national bird should be the construction crane, building a sports venue is just plain easy. The giant Great Peoples Hall (170,000 square meters) on Tiananmen Square was constructed in 10 months.
Okay, it was an easy prediction. Yes, the games are still on just as General Tso still has a chicken dish named after him (the real name of China's civil war military hero was Tso Tsung-t'ang-which is much harder to fit on a menu).
We predicted that many of the venues for games would be largely complete as far as a year before the games. That has come true with the exception of some construction crews which have been asked to slow down! The speed of the construction crews often mirror the intensity of enthusiasm this country has at the prospect of hosting the Olympics. For China, this is not a series of games watched by the world. It is a coming out party to show the world China is a sophisticated international player.
On the subject of North Korea and its unpredictable new nuclear neighbor, China will have a chance to save or lose face, the latter a prospect this country strongly dislikes.
Being unable to convince North Korea’s leader to back down before conducting an underground nuclear test, all eyes and pressure will be on China to tame Kim should the planned six-party talks unravel.
This was the year for China to save face or lose face by quieting its nuclear neighbor – North Korea. With a few hiccups, the six party talks moving North Korea towards disarmament have moved forward and behind the scenes, China's influence is considered a big reason why.
There will be a great experiment this year in China. For the first time, the communist government will allow journalists to roam the country and gather news — without permission from government officials. It may not sound like much, but it will give reporters for the first time the freedom to cover stories both good and bad and report them without being detained or expelled.
The relaxation of the usual restrictions happened under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, but reporters are welcoming it nevertheless. And there’s a feeling that the rules — which are set to expire shortly after the games end — might end up remaining in place as officials see that Chinese media consumers are just as skeptical about reporters and their work as anywhere else.
Relaxing some press freedoms in the run up to the Olympics has indeed been an experiment as we guessed. While permission is no longer needed to travel in most of the country as part of the new Olympic related rules, the local lawmen in some parts of the country haven't gotten the memo.
While videotaping a dam this year, we were detained briefly by Chinese police. When we produced a copy of the new government issued reporting guidelines that the Ministry of Information had given us, the lead lawman thumbed through it, but stopped on the back of the booklet which has the printed signature of a high ranking politburo member. The officer proclaimed that the rules were fake because the official’s signature on the pamphlet was printed and not personally signed.
Knowing that drawing a comparison between that and Ed McMahon's signature on those sweepstakes forms might not resonate, we assured him we were not there to violate any military protocols and we were on our way.
Good for Panda, bad for Dog
As the Chinese year of the dog ends, so do the good times for dogs in Beijing — where officials now are enforcing dog rules: nobody can own more than one dog nor can they own one that’s bigger than a cocker spaniel.
Barking up the wrong tree? With only three percent of dogs vaccinated in a country which sees more than 2,000 die yearly from rabies, officials wanted to crack down before the Olympic Games. Trouble is, pet owners love their dogs and they know there have been no documented rabies cases in Beijing for more than a decade. They won’t be confiscated quietly.
Different story for the beloved Panda, which, thanks to the most successful breeding program in the world, should see a continued baby boom. Whatever anyone thinks of other animals, in China, there can never be too much prolific panda procreation.
As for 2007 — it will be the year of the pig.
Panda's will always have it easy.They are a national treasure. Dogs have a dog’s life though it's getting a bit better. The crackdown on residents owning more than one dog or a single canine that's bigger than a cocker spaniel – Beijing's effort to prevent rabies which kills 2,000 people a year in China – has eased somewhat, although the rules are still in force. Pet ownership is a relatively new concept in mainland China so there's an education push to teach owners that pets need to be vaccinated and to teach officials that small dogs can be as rabid as big dogs.
Mark Mullen is an NBC News correspondent based in Beijing, China. Click here to see his predictions for 2008.