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Olympics: Show time

August 11, 2008

Show time
Economist (UK)
August 8, 2008

BEIJING -- THE 29th Olympic games have started in Beijing with a
display by thousands of soldiers and other performers in the city's
iconic "bird's nest" stadium. The authorities will be pleased. Dozens
of foreign leaders attended the ceremony, including America's
president, George Bush,and Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin.
Despite worries of rain, none fell. The next 16 days will be tense.

The government fears that its critics at home and abroad will mar the
games with protests. It also worries about terrorist attacks, perhaps
by Muslim separatists in the far-western region of Xinjiang. Just
four days before the start of the games, two alleged terrorists
attacked a group of police in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, killing
16. In Beijing during the build-up to the event there were also
several small protests by foreign activists concerned about human and
animal rights. Two Americans and two Britons were expelled from the
country after unfurling banners near the stadium and calling for a
"free Tibet".

To deter such incidents, the authorities have imposed massive
security. Beijing is ringed with checkpoints. Police have been
visiting homes to conduct identity checks. Plainclothes officers have
been deployed on buses. Bags are being searched on the underground.
Citizens have been asked to report to the secret police if they see
foreigners engaged in suspicious activity. Workers from other parts
of the country without proper residence permits have been ordered to
leave the city. Tighter visa restrictions have been imposed for
foreign visitors.

Many parts of Beijing have an unusually deserted air. Bars which were
once popular haunts for foreigners have been ordered to stick to
long-neglected rules that they close by 2am. Their tables have been
removed from pavements to keep revellers indoors. Those without
tickets have been advised to watch the events at home on television.
At one Beijing park police turned away people who had been hoping to
watch the opening ceremony in front of huge open-air screens (they
cited technical problems). Many hotels are reporting far lower
occupancy-rates than they had expected.

Pollution is another big concern. Hundreds of factories have been
closed in and around Beijing. Many government cars have been ordered
off the roads. Car-owners are supposed only to drive every other day.
Yet these measures have had little obvious impact. Haze shrouded
Beijing on the day of the opening ceremony. Officials try to suggest
that it is merely a product of hot and humid conditions. But
measurements made by the BBC suggest a strong correlation between the
city's poor visibility in recent days and high levels of
airborne-particulate matter that can cause respiratory problems.

Despite grumbling among the many thousands of Beijing residents
forced to move home to make way for Olympic construction, and some
dissidents who have been put under tighter surveillance, the
authorities are hoping that the games will create a feel-good factor
at home. They need it after a series of crises, from crippling snow
storms in January to upheaval in Tibet in March, Sichuan's deadly
earthquake in May and riots in various towns since then. Many
citizens worry about inflation, a stockmarket slump and signs that
the property boom of the past few years is losing momentum.

The opening ceremony appeared designed to touch nationalist
heartstrings, with thousands of performers (many of them costumed
soldiers) banging drums and acting out scenes showing off the
country's cultural heritage and scientific prowess. These included
synchronised martial arts and men in spacesuits lowered into the
stadium. Goose-stepping soldiers in uniform raised the national flag
(Korean nationalists would have been less moved—the teams of North
and South Korea failed to agree on a joint parade of their athletes
when the national teams walked around the stadium).

Many Chinese hope that these games will see their country surpass
America as the winner of most medals. If this happens, which many
believe is possible, a triumphant mood will sweep the country.

Outside China feelings will be mixed. There will be thanks for
China's hospitality and admiration for its Olympic infrastructure.
But there will also be complaints about Beijing's lack of party
spirit and its treatment of protesters. The angry nationalists who
were in uproar in China after the violence in Tibet in March will
again wonder whether China is being picked upon by Westerners
resentful of its rise. An event intended to foster international
goodwill could result in more misgiving.
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