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Games put China under the spotlight

The Olympics will showcase an economic success story, but the country's problems also will be exposed.

August 08, 2008|Mark Magnier and Randy Harvey | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — For the last seven years, through clouds of construction dust, thousands of meetings, millions of man-hours and an unprecedented political mobilization, China has waited for today.

At $43 billion, the Beijing Olympics, which begin today, represent one of the most expensive coming-out parties in history. And the belle of the ball has a lot to be proud of. China has risen from poverty and social chaos to engineer one of the most impressive economic success stories ever.

With a delegation of some 600 athletes, China hopes to punctuate its success with a slew of gold medals before the end of the Games on Aug. 24.

"This is such a great moment for China," said Chen Yongming, 55, an engineer and a big fan of track and field, table tennis and swimming. "We're very proud of our civilization."

At a time when the government should be beaming, however, it's got the jitters.

An attack Monday on a border police station in far western Xinjiang province killed 16 paramilitary members. And the country has seen a wave of protests by foreign activists who managed to enter China despite stepped-up visa restrictions, a strict ticketing system and extensive screening.

On Thursday, China deported two Britons with Students for a Free Tibet who unfurled banners a day earlier near the National Stadium, a group spokesman said, and about 2,000 Tibetan demonstrators in Nepal clashed with police while protesting Chinese rule of their homeland.

In response to a speech by President Bush in Bangkok, Thailand, urging Beijing to improve human rights, China's Foreign Ministry called for bilateral dialogue. The ministry also said in a statement, "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries' internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues."

In addition, the Turkestan Islamic Party, which has threatened to attack Olympic targets, again urged Muslims to stay away.

And pollution in Beijing remains a source of constant concern for the image-obsessed country, even on good days. Early today the city was socked in under a heavy cloud of smog.

In some ways the lead-up has almost set aside the fact that representatives from around the world have gathered for a sporting event. About 10,700 athletes from 205 countries will be competing in 28 sports.

China, after finishing second to the United States in gold medals four years ago in Athens by a count of 36 to 32, could get the most medals this time, experts say.

Chinese sports officials downplay that possibility, saying it is more important that the country hold a successful Olympics. Still, seven years ago they implemented Project 119, marshaling new technology, foreign coaches, young recruits and 3,000 specialized schools in a national program to make China a sports superpower.

The United States features a typically strong team led by swimmer Michael Phelps, who, after winning six gold medals in Athens, could surpass Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics by winning eight.

Although some expect the early overhang of tension and heavy-handed security to fade once the Games get underway, the difficult lead-up has some observers wondering whether this party is worth the price.

In promising a perfect Olympics and pledging to keep protesters, and even the weather, under control, China has set itself up for disappointment and created a challenge for protesters.

"There's been a drastic change in outlook by the political leadership from 'coming-out show' to 'Let's let the Olympics pass without a crisis,' " said Cheng Li, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They've really lowered expectations."

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge acknowledged this week that the Chinese face "some challenges." But he remains at least publicly optimistic about the next 16 days.

"I think history will view the Games as a significant milestone in China's remarkable transformation," Rogge said.

Seven years ago, as Beijing waxed euphoric after winning the bid to hold the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese envisioned a surging economy, unqualified international praise and an improved media and human rights record that would reverse the stain of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and cement China's spot at the global table.

Although some of this has materialized, the Fates, combined with fallout from government policies, have not entirely blessed China, despite today's carefully timed opening ceremony linked to a belief in lucky eights: 8/8/08 at 8:08 p.m.

This year has seen a series of food and toy quality scandals, a massive snowstorm in February, Tibetan riots in March, torch relay protests in April and the massive Sichuan earthquake in May.

The government also finds itself battling a chorus of foreign critics howling that it has not met the press freedom and human rights commitments it made in 2001. If anything, the government has cracked down harder on critics and activists to safeguard order and avoid embarrassment.

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