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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.

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But if the authorities are good at the hardware, they are not so good at the software, say longtime residents. There are reasons to wonder how well they will handle visitors and the sorts of problems they will pose. This is not a society where ordinary people are encouraged to spontaneously take the initiative to solve a difficulty, which is what Olympic volunteers normally do at the Games to iron out local wrinkles.

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Tourists might also suffer from sticker shock: Some hoteliers are planning to increase their room rates by as much as 1,000 percent during the Games. A spokeswoman for the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG) says customers should haggle to avoid "exorbitant" rates.

Perhaps the most worrisome problem Olympic organizers face is air quality. By taking cars off the roads, closing factories, and halting all construction work, the government hopes to improve Beijing's notorious pollution. But IOC officials have said they will consider postponing athletic events if the air is too dirty on competition day. To the Chinese, that would represent a considerable loss of face.

How will China deal with threats of boycotts over issues such as Darfur?

Officially Beijing is ignoring them, except occasionally to dismiss them as inappropriate. But at the same time, "the Chinese government does not want any problems for their Games – they deeply want to avoid it," as John Lucas, a prominent Olympic historian puts it.

One of the results: Although protesters are keeping the public pressure on Beijing over Darfur, Western diplomats say China has in fact been helpful in pressuring the Sudanese government for the past year or so.

The authorities are confident that outright boycott campaigns will fizzle, and they are probably right. But they do not want China to be a pariah at Games time, which gives pressure groups some leverage. And there is nothing Beijing can do about the novel Olympics symbols that are springing up to highlight the repressive nature of the Chinese government – five rings of barbed wire in an Amnesty poster, five interlocking handcuffs in a campaign by Reporters Without Borders. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of Reporters Without Borders.]

How is the rest of the world viewing China's role as Olympics host?

China's international detractors and boosters alike are curious about how the Games will turn out in a country where so much of what is happening is unprecedented.

Many in the West are angry that China is being given a chance to burnish its international image without improving its human rights record. "The IOC ought to be using this opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese government ... but that hasn't happened," complains Robert Evans, a British Labour Party member of the European Parliament.

Especially in the United States, perceptions of China and the Games have been soured by the bad news about China that people are paying attention to because of the Games, such as recent food and toy-safety scandals, environmental disasters, or China's military buildup.

"It has gradually dawned on people that it is not all about a shiny new China," says Oded Shenkar, a China specialist at Ohio State University in Columbus.

At the same time, the Olympics are as symbolic to the outside world as they are to Beijing of China's regained status. However critical foreigners are, Mr. Jacques points out, "China is a rising power, and people don't want to be left out of the action."

Mark Rice-Oxley contributed reporting from London.