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Beijing returns to reality

Smog, traffic jams, sagging economy signal that Olympic Games' party is over
By Aileen Mccabe, Ottawa Citizen
September 18, 2008

SHANGHAI - China's Olympic party is well and truly over.

The summer athletes are long gone and the paralympians are now on their way, too. The dream that has driven this country for the past seven years is fading fast.

Reality is set to intrude.

For the people of Beijing, that's going to mean such mundane things as the return of the daily traffic jams, the reopening of factories, the resumption of construction and, inevitably, the end to a marathon run of "blue sky" days.

The city's hazy, dust-laden air will be back before the month is out.

On a larger scale, however, it is anyone's guess what the aftermath of the Games will bring to China.

The seven-year Olympic spending spree pumped at least $42.6 billion into the economy and not even deep-pocketed China can keep up that kind of spending in the face of the worsening world financial crisis. It cushioned the domestic effects of rising oil prices last spring to keep things rosy before the Games, but there is not much it can do in the long term to shield its manufacturing base now that consumers around the world are tightening their belts.

But Beijing made it clear from the outset that -- except for gold medals -- it wasn't looking for tangible results from the Games. Its goal was to change attitudes. All that talk about a "coming out party" and "showcasing the New China," was not idle chatter.

"The significance of the Beijing Olympics is that it allowed most of the people in the world to see the real and modern China," commentator Cao Jingxing wrote recently in the Hong Kong-based Ming Pao Monthly.

Moreover, Mr. Cao, a senior analyst for Phoenix Television, argued: "The staging of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has made the world come up with a new complete evaluation about the present and future of China."

There is no doubt that through the prism of the Olympics the world saw a modern, forward-looking China. Where it was expecting downtrodden masses, it saw eager faces and smiling hospitality. It was enchanted and took away a more upbeat impression of the emerging superpower than it came with. And that has to be an Olympic plus in anyone's books. Beijing will be pleased.

But Mr. Cao also argues that the Olympics weren't just a window for the world, they were mirror for China, too. The Games "caused China to see itself more rationally and realistically about its image, position and reality in the world." From that point of view, the Games certainly gave Beijing the confidence to face its critics -- and find out once and for all what the consequences would be.

For instance, the August Games began with a row over blocked Internet sites and China quickly capitulated, unblocking most of them, but refusing to budge on several related to Falun Gong and Tibet. That appeared to blatantly contradict the promise of freedom for the media it had given the International Olympic Committee, but, interestingly, the half-measure quieted the critics enough that China didn't need to take further action.

Beijing's refusal to allow public protests during the Games met with a similar response. The fact that China went through the motions of setting up designated protest zones was enough to make the furore over not allowing anyone to use them fizzle before it even got off the ground.

Whether such limp responses surprised China is hard to tell. It almost certainly gained a measure of confidence from them, however, since human rights issues have long been a major stumbling block for Beijing in its relations with countries around the world.

The lack of outcry might only reinforce Beijing's stand on human rights, according to Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

"Not a single world leader who attended the Games or members of the IOC seized the opportunity to challenge the Chinese government's behaviour in any meaningful way," she said. "Will anyone wonder after the Games are over why the Chinese government remains intransigent about human rights?"

That is hardly the "Olympic legacy" so many were hoping for, but if it is a sign of a newly confident China, it might not be altogether a bad Olympic outcome.

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