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As the spotlight dims

After China's triumph on the global stage, will the regime now revert to old ways or continue to loosen up?

August 25, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The crowds came. The world watched. China delivered.

Despite worries that pollution, traffic congestion, its human rights issues and overbearing security would make for a "no fun" Olympics, China is basking in accolades after festive closing ceremonies Sunday that wrapped up the most expensive Games in history.

"I think it is the best Olympics ever," said Juan Antonio Samaranch, former head of the International Olympic Committee. "China is No. 1."

That's music to the ears of the Communist Party, which, despite some calls for a boycott, convinced more than 80 heads of state to attend the opening ceremony. The Games exposed billions of global viewers to the Middle Kingdom and its culture, furthering its "soft power" ambitions. It displayed impressive preparation and management skills, and its athletes won 51 gold medals -- far more than the U.S., which won 36, or anyone else, for that matter. Even the air turned out to be better than many people had expected.

But as the architect of China's reforms, former leader Deng Xiaoping, once observed: When you open the windows, the flies may come in.

Inviting the world for a big party also shined an international spotlight on China's dark corners and its lingering concerns about its surprisingly fragile political structure. When the afterglow fades, China will be faced with a host of problems that it has put off addressing.

"The Olympics have showed China's tremendous achievements and real openness compared to 10 years ago," said Cheng Li, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But it's also showed China's tremendous problems."

Among the lasting legacies will be the $41-billion rebuilding of Beijing. Throughout China's long history, each new dynasty has rebuilt the capital, and in the Chinese context this is a signal that the Middle Kingdom is back and ready to play in the big leagues. Venues such as the Bird's Nest stadium and the Water Cube aquatics center have become fixtures on TV screens around the world.

The Olympics should help improve China's global image, although not nearly as much as China once hoped, analysts said. Among the sporting events, NBC and other networks have run vignettes about China, giving millions of ordinary people a view of something more than factory floors and human rights violations.

The Games also should help spur China's self-confidence, although its response to criticism reflected its continued sensitivity to any.

"The Olympics has made us feel more lenient toward the outside world," said Wang Yuezheng, 43, a financial service worker in Beijing.

The question is whether that will allow the country to shed its historical insecurity as the "sick man of Asia," fueled by textbooks that hammer home the indignity of colonial subjugation in the 19th and 20th centuries, said David Shambaugh, professor at George Washington University.

"I hope the country can now move beyond the 'century of shame and humiliation' thinking and ditch all that stuff in its psyche for the past 60 years," he said. "Victimhood runs very deep."

The Games also will probably spur trends already underway that have somewhat expanded personal freedoms. But for those reading between the lines, the Olympics also provided clues to political fragility that belies China's tough and confident demeanor.

The government balked at letting even a few people air their gripes at three designated protest areas set up after pressure from the International Olympic Committee.

Chinese police said they had received 77 applications to hold protests, none of which were approved, according to the official New China News Agency. Human rights groups said a few applicants were detained by security officials. And two septuagenarians trying to protest their forced relocation last week were threatened with a year in a labor camp, the Associated Press reported.

Outside analysts suggested before the Beijing Games that China's fears of unrest were overblown and were more likely to be a pretext for a security crackdown. But a pair of bus bombings and several attacks far from the Olympics in western China's Xinjiang province suggested that its concerns were at least partially justified.

The subtext here, analysts said, is Beijing's fear of simultaneous pressure from within and outside. Even a few domestic protesters, emboldened by the global media spotlight, might encourage huge numbers of other Chinese embittered by issues such as corruption, the gap between rich and poor and wholesale house demolition by the government.

Beijing has also weathered criticism that its impressive Olympics opening ceremony wasn't all it seemed.

Producers admitted that the television footage of a fireworks display was fabricated in an animation studio, that a 9-year-old girl lip-synched a famous patriotic song because the actual singer, a 7-year-old, was nixed for her crooked teeth. And that several dozen "minority children" featured in the show were Han Chinese dressed up in ethnic costumes.

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