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The Beijing Olympics: Our revels now are ended

September 7, 2008

Aug 28th 2008 | BEIJING
From The Economist print edition
A substantial pageant, but its fading leaves not a wrack behind

IT ALL went much as China's leaders had hoped. The ceremonies were 
spectacular, the stadiums as good as any in the world and China won 
far more gold medals than any other country. The world's most 
important politicians showed up and no one, bar a handful of 
vexatious foreigners, staged protests. But after spending tens of 
billions of dollars and huge political energy, China's leaders might 
be wondering whether it was all worth it.

The occasional glimpses on national television of their wooden 
expressions as they watched the closing spectacular of the Olympic 
games on August 24th revealed little of what they felt. This was a 
show they had helped to choreograph, sometimes in minute detail. But 
they have suppressed almost all public discussion about the choices 
they made and the expense involved.
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Officially the games cost $2.2 billion, compared with an original 
estimate of $1.6 billion. Beijing also spent $40 billion on preparing 
its infrastructure and cleaning up the environment. But China's 
secretive budgeting system makes it impossible to verify these 
figures. Chinese officials say the infrastructure had to be built 
anyway and that spending was in line with that of previous host 
cities. But the impression given was of little expense spared.

Vice-President Xi Jinping, at least, has reason to celebrate. The 
games were his first big political test since he emerged as China's 
leader-in-waiting after a Communist Party congress in October last 
year. Mr Xi took charge of preparations for the games, a move 
apparently aimed at demonstrating the importance the party attached 
to them (officially a lower-ranking Politburo member, Beijing's party 
chief, Liu Qi, remained the top organiser). Organisationally the 
games went well.

Less clear is whether the games will pay the kind of political 
dividends that China had hoped for domestically and abroad. The gold-
medal haul (51 compared with America's 36 and 23 for Russia) will 
boost national pride. But many complain about the impact that 
stringent security precautions and tightened visa restrictions for 
foreigners have had on business. Security has been particularly 
intense in Tibet and neighbouring Xinjiang. This may well worsen 
grievances among their inhabitants and strengthen pro-independence 
sentiment in both regions.

For all the good cheer generated by the gold medals, the party is 
clearly nervous of the slightest challenge to its authority. Having 
named three Beijing parks where protests would be allowed during the 
Olympics, the police turned down all of at least 77 applications for 
permission to hold demonstrations. Among those who applied were two 
women in their 70s who wanted to complain about inadequate 
compensation for being relocated from their homes. The authorities 
responded to their request by sentencing both to a year in labour 
camp, though the sentences are suspended as long as they behave well.

Officials made strenuous efforts to keep disaffected citizens from 
other provinces away from the capital during the games. But security 
is likely to be relaxed after the Paralympics, which will be held in 
Beijing between September 6th and 17th. The grievances, from land 
disputes to official corruption, that bring thousands of people to 
the capital every year in a usually futile search for redress will 
soon resurface. Even in the security-conscious build-up to the games 
large riots were reported in several Chinese towns over local abuses 
of power.

Abroad, China's hospitality (towards those who managed to get visas, 
at least), lavish spectacles and magnificent new stadiums drew 
widespread praise. But there will be many doubts about whether all 
the Olympic bonhomie has transformed the way China sees the world. As 
China's response to foreign reactions to the unrest in Tibet in March 
suggested, this can be worryingly xenophobic. The party still sees it 
as essential to its legitimacy to portray the country as a victim of 
Western efforts to contain and dismember it.

Tony Blair, a former British prime minister, argued in the Wall 
Street Journal this week that the games would mark a "new epoch", 
involving an irreversible opening up of China and a steady decline of 
"ignorance and fear" of the country. But what many outside China saw 
during the Olympics was a clampdown on dissent and a disdain even for 
the spontaneous street-party exuberance of previous games. This will 
hardly dispel worries about the impact of China's rise.
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