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The Olympics in China: a moment for pride – and world scrutiny

Chinese officials are treating the Games as proud confirmation of their country's emergence as a global force to be reckoned with.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2008

Getting Ready: The mascot Fuwa cavorts outside Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground Stadium.

Andy Wong/AP

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The Beijing authorities are obsessed with the 2008 Olympic Games – which don't begin until August. You cannot turn your head in this city without one of the five "Fuwa" Olympic mascots smiling at you from a billboard, open a newspaper without reading an Olympics-related story, or turn on the television without seeing a proud promotional clip of Olympic venues. But the Games are a double-edged sword, offering China a chance to show off its prowess – and focusing critical attention on its failings, reports staff writer Peter Ford.

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What does China get out of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games?

An unprecedented opportunity to shine in the international spotlight for an intense three weeks. The Chinese government is treating the Games as a symbolic end to 150 years of humiliation by outside powers and a confirmation of its status as a global power to be reckoned with. Immensely proud of their 5,000-year-plus civilization, the Chinese also hope to show the rest of the world another side of their country than its economic miracle.

Successful Games would be a powerful antidote to the sort of negative press China has been suffering for the past nine months or so, which has drawn attention to poor food quality and other product safety regulations. And whether they are successful or not, the Games have already provided a strong boost to Beijing's economy.

And when the Games are over, officials are desperately hoping (though they won't say publicly) that China will have sneaked past the United States to top the gold medal tally. In Athens four years ago, Chinese athletes won 32 golds to America's 35.

Has the prospect of hosting the Games widened political freedoms in China or improved other aspects of life?

Far from heralding a relaxation, the 2008 Games have actually led to increased repression, according to international human rights group Amnesty International. Beijing had promised improvements in its human rights record, but the head of Amnesty's German chapter said in December that she expected to see "an increase in harassment, detentions, and people placed under house arrest ahead of the Games."

That is because Beijing officials are anxious to present a facade of harmony to the world and its journalists. The government is expected to try even harder than usual to keep anybody who might disturb that image – protesters against religious repression, Tibetan rights activists, or AIDS patients complaining about inadequate government care – out of sight.

Foreign journalists have been told they will be free to report anything from China, but local reporters are still subject to strict censorship.

Opponents of the Beijing government will undoubtedly use the Olympics, and the presence of 10,000 foreign media personnel, to try to publicize their causes. The Chinese police will undoubtedly try to stop them. Expect cat-and-mouse games outside the sports venues.

Still, Beijing residents are enjoying somewhat cleaner air as authorities struggle to reduce pollution ahead of the Games. "That's a real sign of international criteria interacting with a developing nation and requiring a shift of consciousness," says Martin Jacques, a London-based writer on Chinese affairs.

Will the Games be a success?

On the architectural and civil engineering front, China's preparations for the 2008 Games have won nothing but praise from the International Olympic Committee: the "bird's nest" Olympic stadium is spectacular and all construction work is on – or ahead of – schedule.