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How much is Olympic ideal -- or decoration?

BEIJING -- The shirtless old man shuffled down the middle of the narrow street, teeth as brown as his socks, the decay spreading into a smile.

“People only look at the bad things in our country,” Zhang Wen Bin said. “The Olympics will make them look at the good things.”

Under a sweltering, smoggy midday sun in this ancient neighborhood, it is difficult to find those good things.

The alleys are lined with soda bottles filled with freshly boiled water. Dirty windows open to the sound of noisy fans clattering over junk-filled rooms. A bare-bottomed child plays in a murky puddle.

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Everyone, it seems, is hunched over against the sun and sweating through the heat.

But, like Zhang, it seems everyone is also smiling.

Everyone but the man in the black sweat suit who has just walked up behind me.

While Zhang chatters happily about today’s Olympic opening ceremony, the man stands motionless while staring at me. And staring. And staring.

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Zhang’s excitement about the interview soon turns to annoyance with the questioning.

“People never have deep thoughts about China,” Zhang said. “These Olympics will make them think.”

Tonight’s caldron lighting at the spectacular new National Stadium will indeed be accompanied by the sparking of a world’s conscience.

More than any Games in recent memory, the Beijing Olympics will truly make us think.

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Can we celebrate the coronation of a world power amid the suffocation of its human rights?

Can we cheer the Olympics’ sacred freedom of movement while the local sheriff monitors our every step?

Can we admire the gleaming sports stadiums that are surrounded by miles of hovels and shacks?

Will the Olympics affect us the way that man in the black suit affected the retired engineer Zhang Wen Bin, turning his smiles into anger?

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“People who come here looking for negative things, they are not friends of China,” Zhang said bitingly, abruptly ending the interview.

So what is it going to be?

Can we be a fan of the Olympics without being a friend of China?

Can we be both?

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Or will we be neither?

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After three full days of wandering through the colorful, wonderfully mysterious streets of Beijing, I have two observations.

This place touches my heart. This place scares me to death.

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I love the kindness of the Beijing people, who are so aggressively helpful that it sometimes feels as if they are literally carrying you through the day.

They meet you the moment you leave your hotel room, and never again do you feel alone until you return.

They talk with you. They walk with you. They laugh with you. You never feel lost. You never feel unwelcome.

No doubt the athletes will feel this kindness during the next two weeks, and we will surely see it in ovations and support.

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But no doubt they will wonder, how much is Olympic ideal and how much is Olympic decoration?

It is tough to accept all the smiles in a place where the man who embodies the Olympic ideal, humanitarian speedskater Joey Cheek, was recently banned from the country because he has challenged China’s human rights.

It is hard to understand the sincerity of a place that embraces strangers but forgets its own citizens.

Before visiting Zhang in his neighborhood this week, I visited thousands of Chinese at Tiananmen Square, the site of the tragic 1989 protests in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese were killed by the government.

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Nearly everyone I interviewed initially asked whether I was a friend of China.

And nobody expressed an ounce of sorrow for the memory of those slain protesters.

“Some bad people did some bad things here,” said Iud Deti, a retiree. “And the government took care of them.”

Either they refused to sympathize, or refused to even acknowledge.

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“I don’t know what you read, and I don’t know if it’s true,” said a man named Hebei. “But the government never did anything to hurt me.”

In trying to decipher the response to the Tiananmen Square memories Thursday, I attempted to call up an old protest video on YouTube.

I couldn’t. The Chinese government had gotten there first.

There are websites we cannot see, information we cannot hear, interviews we should not do.

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Walking down the street to the marvelous new swimming facility -- “The Water Cube” -- I wondered if the rows of stoic guards were there to direct me or spy on me.

During the week before the Games, everything here was running smoothly. Everything except my stomach.

Should the IOC even have brought these Games to Beijing?

Protesters of Chinese policies around the world would say no.

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Given that the government here still won’t allow basic freedoms, I would agree with those protesters.

But money talked, and now ethics will walk -- the only question being how long and how far.

The people of Beijing deserve better. The world deserves better. And the Olympics certainly deserve better.

The question of the next two weeks is, will the Chinese government give it to them, to us?

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With the new venues and efficient infrastructures and Michael Phelps jumping into the pool first thing every morning, these Olympics have a chance to write a song that will live forever.

Will we be able to close our eyes long enough to hear it?

Do we even want to?

--

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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