Behind The Bamboo Curtain

• Advance education • Speed up development of industry • Industrialize agriculture • Build tourism • Push forward state-owned enterprise reform • Improve standards of construction • Protect the environment • Alleviate poverty • Try to be in first group of national civilized city • Make sure social order is stable

To the deputy secretary, the awarding of the torch is proof the city has been developing properly. It's a nod from Beijing. "Being a torch city will make more people know about the city," Li says. "More business people and experts will pay attention to Mianyang."

The 4 o'clock bell rings and the students bound down the stairs to the practice fields. Two girls stop to primp in front of a mirror. A group of guys goes straight to the basketball court. Others gather on the track. The deputy secretary goes down to watch, sucking on a cigarette. Chinese pop music plays on the speakers.

One girl runs past him, breathing hard, pigtails bouncing. She's digging deep, catching up with the pack. Halfway down the backstretch, she pulls ahead. Then she doubles her lead, then triples it, really huffing and puffing, grabbing her throat. The deputy secretary takes another drag, watching her run, ignoring the pain, head up, eyes bright. Out on the road, trucks loaded with electronics rumble past.

Road Diary, entry 6: THE SHIBBOLETH Driving between Mianyang and Chengdu

The last stretch of road brings a bit of everything: crops and smokestacks, bicycles and coal trucks, bland suburbs and picturesque villages. I ask Singing Songs whether he'd ever go back the factory where he once worked. He shakes his head.

"Why?" I ask him.

"Because," he says, pointing out at the road winding in front and behind us, a road that can take you not just across a country but back in time.

"Freedom."

We've driven the equivalant of New York to Dallas, and the numbers next to Chengdu are getting smaller on the signs. This city is like the Denver of China: metropolitan, artsy, modern, all the things that Beijing wants the western cities to be. Soon, the Olympic advertisements start again. That's how we know we're close to an urban area. The 16-year-old peasant from San Lou was right: The 2008 Games live in the cities.

In two days, a provincial party official will say, earnestly and with a straight face, "All of China is excited about the Olympics." But, after a week out on Highway 108, it's clear this isn't true. New China is excited. Old China isn't. This simple question — Are you excited about the Olympics? — is actually a much more complicated one in disguise, one that gets to the heart of modern China. It's many questions, really. Are you moving forward or being left behind? Do you have something to offer? Are you the future or the past? Are you a have or a have-not?

These thoughts fade away as the skyline grows larger. We follow the signs to the city center, dominated by a monument to the man who founded the People's Republic, and finally we come to the end of our time on Highway 108. It continues straight, all the way to Kunming, through black soot and green fields. We take a right at the Starbucks, driving past the Bulgari and Cartier boutiques, down toward the statue of Mao.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

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