WHAT DID WE LEARN AS FLAME FLICKERS?

DAY 17: The end of this and the beginning of everything else.

BEIJING – The stage is bare, the seats are empty, and you can hear your voice echo off the ceiling. On any given night a musical or concert might take place here. On Sunday mornings, however, around 7, people enter the 21st Century Theater off Liangmaqiao Road carrying wires, microphones and large posters of Christian religious symbols. Within a few hours, services are being held. There is praying. There is a sermon. It mimics, on most levels, what will happen today in churches across America.

Except in Beijing you need a foreign passport to get in. If you are Chinese, you are turned away.

And by 1:30 in the afternoon, everything comes down.

You can shop in this country. You can drive in this country. You can dance and sing and make a fortune in this country. Yet you can’t have multiple children and you can’t pray where you wish and you can’t say anything you please.

As these Summer Olympics draw to a close today, viewers rub their weary eyes and marvel at what they have seen. Others question what they have seen. Others criticize what they have seen.

Rob Tucker is a 42-year-old pastor for the Beijing International Christian Fellowship, which runs the services in this theater every Sunday. He has seen a lot. His church is housed in a hotel, on the second floor, down the hall from a dental clinic. Tucker, who grew up in Michigan but felt a “calling” to come to this strange and impressive nation a decade ago, has learned that nothing is as simple as its appearance in China.

“You hear the term ‘underground church,’ ” he says, “you hear the terms ‘government-controlled church,’ you hear that there’s a lot of persecution going on, and you hear that there’s complete freedom going on.”

He sighs. “Everything you hear about China is true. It just depends where.” The Games of Phelps and Bolt

Has there ever been an Olympics like this? So impressive and so suspicious at the same time? From the Opening Ceremonies, which set a new high for visual awesomeness, yet were questioned about lip-syncing children and video-enhanced fireworks; to the gymnastics, in which China hauled in massive gold, but was suspected of using underage children; to the track, where China’s biggest sports star, Liu Xiang, lined up in the blocks and then pulled out with a sudden injury, which some claim was a national tragedy and others claim was a ruse to avoid losing to a Cuban rival; to the city of Beijing, which was full of celebration, yet was virtually devoid of predicted protests because, according to the government, the protesters hadn’t filed the proper paperwork.

I have never, in a 16-day period, witnessed so much and been less sure of what I’ve seen.

But I do know this …

I know Michael Phelps was real. I didn’t think any swimmer could rouse American fascination – the sport has been trying in vain since Mark Spitz – but with each successive race, Phelps turned up the volume. He couldn’t have scripted a wider assortment of victories, from total dominance to a hundredth-of-a-second nail-biter. The more he won, the more people wanted to know about the swimmer who spent the past four years training in Ann Arbor. What Phelps ate. How he slept. Where his mother was sitting.

Most prehyped Olympic athletes pale once the torch is extinguished. Phelps will be the exception. With eight gold medals, he is not going anywhere. What was it teammate Aaron Peirsol said would be the new term for Olympic amazement? “The Phelpsian feat”?

Welcome to the dictionary, Mr. Phelps.

And I know this: If an American kid redefined speed in water, a Jamaican kid redefined it on land. Usain Bolt, 22 this past week, one year younger than Phelps, had nowhere near the hype coming into Beijing but every bit of it coming out. Three races? Three gold medals? Three world records? Bolt-mania was, to the Games’ second week, what Phelps-mania was to the first.

Bolt’s races spanned only eight days. But he is Exhibit A in how one Olympics can catapult you into the stratosphere. Criticized for his self-celebratory attitude – even Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, laid into him – Bolt didn’t care.

“All I can say,” Bolt told the media, “is, ‘Yo, Jamaican sprinters taking over the world.’ “

A gold-medal sweep of the men’s and women’s 100 and 200?

I know that’s true. Keeping up with the Chinese

I know this as well: We may catch Jamaica one day, but we are not catching China. Not in gold medals. Not under our current system. And not under China’s. There are simply too many athletes to choose from in China, and too big and complex a machine that molds them.

Remember two decades ago, at the Seoul Olympics, when East Germany won more gold and more total medals than the United States? The Chinese employ a similar approach. Take kids from a young age. Put them in sports schools. Isolate them from family, drill them endlessly, pick the best of the best and focus on sports in which multiple medals are available.

But East Germany had only 17 million people. China has 1.3 billion. So forget it. Nobody is catching the Chinese if they keep this up. It was only three Olympics ago, in Atlanta, that China didn’t even make the top three in the medal count. Since then, it has been climbing steadily. Perhaps, in years to come, it will scale back. But in Beijing it was part of a massive grand plan: Put on the most golden Olympics, and win more gold than anyone attending.

But then, this is a country with an endless series of grand plans. Five-year plans. Fifteen-year plans. Spontaneity is not encouraged. Individualism is not encouraged. I studied carefully the translations of the comments made by China’s gold medalists. You almost never heard a detailed individual story. No talk about “my grandmother, when I was 5 years old, gave me a pair of running shoes …” And you certainly never heard, “First I want to thank Jesus Christ …”

What you heard were comments about “honor” for the nation or living up to expectations of the people.

You heard female archer Zhang Juanjuan, after taking gold, tell the media: “The honor is not just for me but for all those related to the sport.”

You heard female weightlifter Chen Yanqing tell reporters: “I dedicate this gold medal to my country.”

You heard gymnast Chen Yibing, who won the gold in men’s rings, sum up his performance in typical Chinese analytical fashion. “Today, my biggest rival didn’t do his best,” he told reporters, “so I sealed my victory when I landed steadily.”

By the way, Chen, 23, began training at a sports school at age 5.

And he already was behind the others.

We are not catching the Chinese, not with their current system. And in my opinion, we shouldn’t try. After all, Americans do not need the Olympics to send messages about their society. Gold medals don’t make our nation unassailable. Bronze medals don’t make it weak.

By contrast, these past few weeks in China were always about making an impression, framing a story, coming out to the world on its terms.

So while the Games were a mural of Phelps and Bolt and the gymnasts and the divers and the Redeem Team and the swan song of softball and baseball, and the dropped batons by the U.S. relay teams and the cancer-stricken American who still competed in the breaststroke and the one-legged woman from South Africa who competed in a marathon swim, while they were about every athlete and every inspiring story that stepped up to a starter’s pistol, the biggest character in Beijing was China itself.

So, as the Games come to a close, what do we know? A warm and friendly people

The answer is, still, very little. On so many levels, in so many places, Beijing looks so much like the United States – shopping malls, Starbucks, traffic, big buildings – that you can forget the state runs everything in China. That the Chinese don’t hold elections. That there are indeed people in jail for simply expressing their point of view. I tried, in vain, during my time here, to speak to a friend of a friend who was under house arrest for daring to film a documentary about religion in China. He kept balking at an interview because, his friend told me, his phone was tapped and he might suffer penalties simply for a conversation, even off the record.

You can’t forget that. Nor can you fairly say that people are unhappy here. Most do not appear so. There was laughter and hand-holding and pride and tears. The people of Beijing were as warm and as open as could be. Sure, their politicians may have dubious motivations. But would you want foreign visitors judging you or your family strictly on the actions of the president or Congress?

Besides, you cannot study China in a vacuum. Those cynics who are aghast at the lip-syncing little girl in the Opening Ceremonies or the facades that were put up over ugly Beijing buildings (and by the way, we did similar things in Detroit when the Super Bowl came to town) should put such things in the context of this country.

Remember, this is a place where Chairman Mao regularly swam in the Yangtze River to prove his virility to the people. He did so, famously, in 1966, when he was 72 and rumored to be sick and powerless. According to the propagandists, Mao swam nine miles in just 65 minutes, which was world-record pace. At 72? We might laugh at such a spectacle. But that’s what the Chinese people were told.

And it was with a straight face.

So how much of these Olympics were a swim down the Yangtze? No doubt some. And not as much as critics accuse.

“Everything here is political. And the government sees its reach as stretching into religion,” Tucker, the pastor, says. “But that’s just how it is here. … The missionaries that came to China in the 1800s faced the same thing. It’s not necessary one regime. At that time it was an emperor. So is this more of a Chinese or Asian attribute? Maybe it is.”

Tucker, from the Algonac area, has accepted that he and his fellow workers are here as guests. He says he has never had a service interrupted. He has never had a sermon questioned or edited.

But, of course, his service is for foreigners – tourists, expats, students. Chinese nationals are not allowed in. There is a Christian church that is sanctioned by the government called the Three Self Church (or the Three Self Patriotic Movement). Some see it as a sham, a place where the pastors have been government-trained, where you can’t sermonize about human rights, abortion, the resurrection or any political issues.

Others will point to it as progress. They say many of the pastors are sincere in their Christianity, and that on many Sundays, it is little different from church services in America. There is also a burgeoning “house church” movement in China, in which people gather in homes to worship. Sometimes these thrive. Sometimes they are busted up. Two summers ago, an attempted church build in the Xiaoshan district was destroyed by the government. Yet, sometimes local officials look the other way.

“It all depends where,” Tucker says.

Still, when you think America was founded on the idea of religious freedom, that the pursuit of happiness is written into our Constitution, and that we hold majority-rules elections, you realize a place where you don’t vote, you can’t easily pray, and your happiness – if it involves family – is capped, well, that’s as different as it can be.

One night, at a massage-and-health facility that I have written about, a pleasant, middle-aged therapist whom we knew only as No. 9 spoke about his having only one child, a son. He seemed melancholy about it. When he witnessed friends of mine who brought two sons by the facility, he nodded his head approvingly.

“Two sons,” he said. “Is good.” So many sights and sounds

Here is the last of what I know from my visit to Beijing: What I’ve seen. I’ve seen a man on a bicycle carrying 20 shoe boxes stacked on the back, a horse sleeping in the middle of the road, a shopping center that puts Somerset Collection to shame, a woman selling baby shoes that she had s

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