BEIJING — First there was the freak snowstorm in February. Then the Tibetan riots in March. Then in rapid succession the controversial torch relay, Sichuan earthquake, widespread flooding and an algae bloom that's tarnishing the Olympic sailing venue. Just when it seemed that nothing else could go wrong this year in China, the locusts have arrived.
Locusts? What is going on here? The litany of near-biblical woes would seem to lack only a famine and smiting of the first born.
The Middle Kingdom's parade of problems has threatened to put a major damper on China's moment of glory less than five weeks before the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
This week, China sent out an all-points bulletin for exterminators. About 33,000 professionals were quickly dispatched to Inner Mongolia in hopes of preventing a cloud of locusts from descending on Beijing during the Games.
The vermin apparently hatched a month early due to warmer than usual weather and have already eaten their way through 3.2-million acres of grassland in three areas of the countryside near Beijing. With the capital only a few hundred miles away and the Chinese leadership in no mood to take chances, some 200 tons of pesticide, 100,000 sprayers and four aircraft have been thrown into this battle of the bugs.
"To ensure a smooth Olympic Games and stable agricultural production, we have launched a full prevention plan to prevent and control further locust migration," Bao Xiang, head of the badly hit Xilingol League grassland work station, told the state-run New China News Agency.
China is no stranger to disasters, natural and human-made. But such a concentration of woes in this high-profile year has fanned rumors and superstition in a nation where people pay huge sums for lucky license plate numbers and feng shui consultants do a booming business.
China sought in advance of the Olympics to bank as much good luck as possible. The opening ceremony begins at 8:08 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. Eight is considered a lucky number among the Chinese because in the language the number and "prosperity" sound alike.
The government also built the Olympic Village on a meridian directly north of Tiananmen Square, consistent with Beijing's core feng shui principles.
These supplications to the gods of fortune by an officially atheist Communist government, however, apparently weren't enough. This year has also seen a falling stock market, a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and a major train collision.