The elaborate closing ceremony that ended the Beijing games on Sunday also ended 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 Almost nothing has superseded the Olympics as a political priority in China.
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 international 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 engagement with the world and domestic political reform or if 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 on Sunday afternoon that choosing 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,” 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. 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.