August 25, 2008

For China, an End and a Beginning Success of Olympics Likely to Enhance Country’s Confidence

By Jim Yardley

What now for China?

The Olympic closing ceremony on Sunday ended not just the Beijing Games but also nearly a decade in which the ruling Communist Party had made the Olympics an organizing principle in national life. Almost nothing has superseded the Olympics as a political priority in China.

But the close of the Games now means the opening of a new, still undefined, post-Olympic era in China. With China earning praise for its staging of the Games and criticism for its uncompromising suppression of dissent, a looming question is how, if at all, the Olympic experience will influence Chinese leaders at a time when many people inside and outside the party in China want to deepen the reforms that began three decades ago.

Asked to assess the impact of the Olympics on the Chinese leadership and on the country's people, many analysts predicted a deepening national self-confidence, even if opinions differed on how a more confident China might act.

From the Chinese perspective, the Olympics were an outright success that brought a record medal count and inspired nationwide excitement, even as Beijing impressed many foreign visitors with its hospitality and efficiency.

"China was eager to present something that shows it is a new power that has its own might," said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. "It has problems but it is able to manage them. It has weaknesses in its institutions but also strengths in those same institutions."

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, declared on Sunday afternoon that choosing Beijing as a host had been the "right choice" and said that the event had been a bridge between China and the rest of the world. "The world has learned about China, and China has learned about the world," Rogge said. "I believe this is something that will have positive effects for the long term."

China has the world's largest authoritarian political system, and, to a large degree, the Beijing Games reflected the might of that centralized power: The stunning sports stadiums contributed to a $43 billion price tag for the Games that was almost completely absorbed by the state. China's 51 gold medals, easily the most of any nation, were the product of a state-controlled sports machine. Those successes are one reason that some analysts doubt Chinese leaders will rush to change the status quo.

"They have earned a tremendous amount of face because of the Olympics," said Hung Huang, a media executive in Beijing. "They are going to ride on that for a while. We don't have a culture that is pro-change. China, by nature, has got to be provoked to make changes. The economic reforms came about because we were desperately poor."

Indeed, for all the attention to the Olympics, 2008 also marks the 30th anniversary of China's initial embrace of the market reforms that have powered the country's rapid economic rise. Liberals in China have hoped this anniversary would inspire new reforms, especially to a political system still marred by corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability.

But critics say that the Olympics have underscored the deep resistance within the Communist Party to becoming more tolerant of dissent. The party had faced a procession of crises during the prelude to the Olympics: the violent Tibetan protests that began in March, the angry protests during the international Olympic torch relay, and the devastating May earthquake in Sichuan Province. Protests seemed inevitable during the Games, and the authorities initially seemed to signal more openness toward legal dissent when they announced three designated protest zones in city parks.

But even though many Chinese citizens made formal applications to protest in the zones, none were approved during the Games. Two elderly women who applied to protest about a land dispute were instead sentenced to a labor and re-education prison camp. Meanwhile, eight Americans were among a group of foreigners being held in a detention center for 10 days after they tried to demonstrate about China's Tibet policies.

"For the Chinese authorities to sentence them at all shows the government's insecurity and intolerance of even the most peaceful challenges to its authoritarian control," the advocacy group Students for a Free Tibet said in a statement.

Even so, the Communist Party likely won the overall public relations battle, given the enormous television coverage, largely positive, that the Olympics brought to Beijing. David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University in Washington, said the Games were a "win-win" for the party and bolstered its international image after the divisive problems of earlier in the year.

But Shambaugh said that success would be more meaningful if it increases national confidence in a way that allows China to move past simmering historical grievances that erupted this year, especially during the Tibet crises.

"I would hope that we would look back at this as a major threshold of when China ditched all its baggage of the historical narrative of aggrieved nationalism," Shambaugh said, "and just rewrote that narrative and began to act with more confidence about itself and its role in the world."

No issue poses a more immediate test than Tibet. Later this autumn, the Chinese authorities are expected to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. Following the March crisis, the party renewed its dialogue with the Dalai Lama, though some analysts questioned whether Chinese officials had agreed to the talks merely to defuse international criticism in advance of the Games. With the Olympics now concluded, China's willingness to engage in real negotiations will be closely watched.

"That's going to be a really good test case," Shambaugh said.

Beneath the sphere of geopolitics, many analysts were impressed with ordinary citizens in Beijing during the Games. The authorities had worried that the angry strain of nationalism that erupted during the Tibet crisis might mar the Games with local crowds jeering other teams. But little of that came to pass. Fans even enthusiastically greeted the return of Lang Ping, a volleyball legend in China who now lives in the United States and coaches the U.S. women's volleyball team - and guided the United States to a victory over the Chinese team.

Xu Zhou, a Beijing native who is now a professor of geography at Vassar College in New York, returned for the Games and described the positive public mood and welcoming attitude as proof that enhanced national self-esteem would make China less threatening. "I would like China to be more confident," she said. "I think that would make China and Chinese become more tolerant and open."

Any Olympic host city experiences a blend of letdown and relief once the torch is extinguished, and Beijing will likely be no different. Major problems will need attention. The relatively blue skies during the Games were achieved only by Draconian restrictions that removed two million vehicles from the streets of Beijing and forced the temporary shutdown of many factories around the region. The city's air pollution, which ranks among the worst in the world, will return when the restrictions are lifted after the conclusion of the Paralympics in late September.

"Beijing will return to being, well, cloudy - full of smog," Shen said.

Shen predicted that the Olympics would raise public expectations. He said Beijing residents, having enjoyed startlingly nice weather during the Games, will be more demanding of officials to find ways to keep the skies clearer after the Games.

He said the Games would bolster national confidence and help "make China a more normal country." But he added that the country still has many problems and should not try to hide them or pretend they do not exist.

"With its increase of wealth, China is entering a stage where it needs to have better transparency, good governance and more accountability," Shen said. "This Olympics is a good start for us to think about how China is strong - and where we are weak."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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