Will China Keep the Flame Alight?

The Independent‘s Clifford Coonan wonders whether the Olympics has merely been a way for China to show the rest of the world a Potemkin village or whether it really does mark the beginning of a new era of reform:

For many groups lobbying for more freedoms in China, and critical of Beijing’s policies on Tibet and Xinjiang and its curbs on human rights, the Olympics have been a disaster and have acted as a catalyst for abuse. The leadership will be happy with the Games, just as veteran dissidents such as the jailed Aids activist Hu Jia feared they would, but people on the streets are hopeful the more tolerant China revealed during these Games will also prevail.

One of the most potent examples of the warmer China was the reaction to 110-metre hopeful Liu Xiang’s hobbling out of contention, despite expectations of a triumph having been built up beyond belief. People were gutted, but they did not call for his head on a spike, and this can be read as a sign of a more tolerant society emerging. People come out with truisms common in the West, but rare in China until now, about how taking part is what really counts. The fact that China will come out with a staggering 45 gold medals probably helps.

For the rest of the year, the government’s attention will turn to the economy and to celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the launch of the “reform and opening” policies that have swept away state controls over much of economic and cultural life. Inflation was running at more than 6 per cent in July, and while the economy is still growing by double-digit per cent, the global outlook is less than rosy and that will impact on China at some point.

Beijing organiser spokesman Wang Wei says that he stuck by his message that the Olympic Games would help China to open up and reform better. “China is developing quickly. People enjoy more freedom and they have a lot to say. If you ask the ordinary Chinese on the street they will say the same. You have to believe the majority of the people, otherwise you are misled,” he said.

There is something to Wang’s point. In China, the vast majority of people believe that reform by the Communist Party has improved their lot – it has taken hundreds of millions off the poverty line and restored pride in the nation. For the record, the majority also believe Tibet was, is and always will be Chinese. The Olympic gold haul is as perfect an illustration of that new-found pride, of the end to what the Chinese see as centuries of humiliation by foreign powers. Now the world is watching to see how China deals with its new global influence.