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Monday, August 25, 2008

After Glow of Games, What Next for China?

Doug Kanter for The New York Times
The closing ceremony on Sunday night.

Published: August 24, 2008

BEIJING — The elaborate closing ceremony that ended the Olympic Games on Sunday also ended nearly a decade in which the ruling Communist Party had made the Games an organizing principle in national life. Almost nothing has superseded the Olympics as a political priority in China.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

People watched fireworks in Beijing on Sunday during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. For the Chinese, the Games were a big success, showcasing the nation’s rising economic and political power. Analysts wonder whether the success of the Games might make China’s leadership more open to reforms, or less tolerant of them.

For Chinese leaders, all that effort paid off. The Games were seen as an unparalleled success by most Chinese — a record medal count inspired nationwide excitement, and Beijing impressed foreign visitors with its hospitality and efficiency. And while the government’s uncompromising suppression of dissent drew criticism, China also demonstrated to a global audience that it is a rising economic and political power.

But a new, post-Olympic era has begun. The question now is whether a deepening self-confidence arising from the Olympic experience will lead China to further its engagement with the world and pursue deeper political reform, or whether the success of the Games and the muted Western response to repression will convince leaders that their current model is working.

“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, the president of the International Olympic Committee, declared Sunday afternoon that selecting Beijing as a host had been the “right choice” and 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,” Mr. Rogge said. “I believe this is something that will have positive effects for the long term.”

To a large degree, the Beijing Games reflected the might of the centralized power of China’s authoritarian system: 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, 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. As the population becomes more urban and wealthy, the leadership will probably have to contend with rising expectations and demands for better services. 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.

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 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 those zones remained empty. Chinese citizens made formal applications to protest, but none were approved during the Games. Two elderly women who applied to protest about a land dispute were sentenced to a labor and re-education prison camp. Meanwhile, eight Americans were among a group of foreigners jailed after they tried to demonstrate about China’s Tibet policies. The authorities released the Americans on Sunday and placed them on a flight to Los Angeles as the closing ceremony began.

“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,” Students for a Free Tibet, a New York-based advocacy group, said in a statement.

Even so, the Communist Party most 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. But Mr. Shambaugh said that success would be more meaningful if it increased national confidence in a way that allowed China to move past simmering historical grievances that erupted this year, especially during the Tibet crises.

He said the Games should help China put a symbolic end to its self-described “century of humiliation” that saw the country weakened by foreign intervention that began during the second half of the 19th century. “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,” Mr. 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. In October, the Chinese authorities are expected to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. The Communist Party renewed that dialogue after the March crisis, but 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,” Mr. 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 United States women’s volleyball team — and guided the United States to a victory over the Chinese team.

Yu Zhou, a Beijing native who is now a professor of geography at Vassar College, returned for the Games and described the positive public mood and welcoming attitude as proof that enhanced national self-esteem would serve as a moderating influence on China. “I would like China to be more confident,” Ms. Yu 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 is likely to be no different. Major problems will need attention. The relatively blue skies during the Games were achieved only by 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,” said Mr. Shen, the Fudan University professor.

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

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

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