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Olympic success boosts China’s confidence

The success of the Olympics is expected to help China’s leaders and people trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism.

By Staff writer / August 24, 2008

‘Shock and awe’: Dancers dazzle viewers around the world from Beijing’s National Stadium during the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games.

David Guttenfelder/AP

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Beijing

As the Olympic flame flickered out on Sunday night, Chinese leaders could congratulate themselves that the event on which they had staked so much had unfolded almost precisely according to their game plan.

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The striking success of the Olympics – burnishing China’s prestige as the world admired its sporting prowess, organizational skills, and dramatically modern urban landscapes – could encourage profound changes in the country, say a range of Chinese and foreign analysts.

“The implications of the Olympics go way beyond a recognition that China is a sports power,” says Wenran Jiang, a politics professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. “There are many ways in which the Games will move China forward.”

One profound change that a number of China-watchers predict, in light of the international respect China has earned: that its leaders and people will trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism.

Beijing invested this summer’s Olympics with enormous symbolic importance: They were to crown the country’s rise to the status of a global power. The months leading up to the Games, though, showed China at its clumsy, ill-tempered, and repressive worst.

The government’s harsh crackdown on an uprising in Tibet was bad enough for China’s image abroad. Its angry reaction to the protests that crackdown attracted in several Western cities during the international torch relay made things worse.

Journalists’ reports from Beijing highlighted fears that the city’s chronic air pollution would hamper athletes, and drew attention to the way the authorities were sweeping embarrassments under the carpet by sending migrant workers home, arresting dissidents, and clearing the capital of as many foreigners as possible.

Almost from the moment the Games began with a “shock and awe” opening ceremony, however, the Chinese authorities regained control of the narrative, and the sports became the main story line.

“China set out to stage a spectacle that would win victories in the consciousness of others without firing a shot,” says Robert Kapp, former president of the US-China Business Council. “And for many people around the world, I imagine they have succeeded.”

From TV audiences presented with a “picture-perfect” Games, in the words of Professor Jiang, to visitors here impressed by what they have found, the spectacle appears to have served its purpose.

Before she came to Beijing, Nadine Lewman says, her impression of China was of “sweatshops and smog.” Now, adds the Portland, Ore. resident, “I think it’s a beautiful country. Seeing it has changed my image and I would love to come back. They’ve sold me.”

“I think the Games have been a stunning success for the Chinese government in terms of its international image,” says David Shambaugh, Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “This is going to earn China considerable international respect.”

That is critically important, argues Xu Guoqi, a professor at Kalamazoo College, because for more than a century China has been afflicted by “a sense of inferiority, crying out for recognition and respect like a teenage boy. These Games may be a turning point to cure that syndrome.”