Journalists make poor prophets, but I think I’m on safe ground here: early next week the Chinese government will declare that the Olympics have been a roaring success. The International Olympic Committee – an organisation only marginally less authoritarian than the Chinese Communist Party – will agree. Someone will say, “It was the best Olympics ever.”
Then, maybe, the bureaucrats who run the country will feel secure enough to stop worrying about how China looks to the outside world and will turn their attention to the real problems affecting the Chinese people. In their fervour to stage a good Olympics, the country’s rulers have equated the national image with the national interest. So, anything deemed unsightly – old buildings, people with awkward opinions, the poor – has been destroyed or swept out of sight.
The result has been a Potemkin Olympics, where visitors have seen a gleaming Olympic Village full of happy volunteers and cheering fans, while the complex reality of a flawed but dynamic society has been obscured.
…With inflation above 6 per cent, and the world economy slowing, the government has a number of complex economic problems to solve. Senior party officials know they must address the growing gap between rich and poor, and endemic corruption, before discontent gets out of hand. The government has silenced dissenters by locking them up during the Games, but soon they will have to let out at least a few and deal with some of the issues they raise.
The Chinese government is in no way democratic, but its rapid and effective response to the earthquake indicates that it is accountable. When things go wrong, people expect their officials to respond. Chinese people took on the Olympics as a civic duty and a matter of national pride. Most appear to have enjoyed it, but now they may start to demand that the government concentrate on their needs, rather than trying to impress foreigners.
Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News.