At 10:04 p.m. Beijing time Friday, the long-awaited announcement was already four minutes late. Policemen looked left and right, putting walkie-talkies to their ears, appearing just as nervous as the anxious throngs.
Then it came. One tall officer yelled, "Cheng gong le!" - We've succeeded! As other police spread the news to the crowd, it took a moment for all the mothers and fathers with children on their shoulders, all the elderly men and women in cool summer clothing, and all the fashionable young high school and university students to believe that Beijing had indeed won the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
One student yelled to TV cameras, "Hello, world! We are China! We are the Chinese people!" A frenzy of high-fives, hugs, cellphone calls, and cheers rippled through the crowd around the perimeter of the carefully scripted, made-for-TV official celebration at Beijing's Millennium Monument, a gathering place built for the turn of the new century that is a less politically charged icon than Tiananmen Square. Red-and-yellow flags waved by the crowd competed with fireworks, dragons, and dancers. McDonald's restaurants around the city stayed open into the early morning hours, handing out free burgers. A one-page edition of the People's Daily newspaper spread through the masses with the headline: "Beijing Olympic Bid is Successful!"
Yet politics and human rights continued to shadow the International Olympics Committee decision over the weekend, as nongovernmental organizations and academics debated whether and how the opportunity of the Games would affect China's future actions on rights-related issues. On Saturday, after a closed trial, the first of a handful of scholars with ties to the US was convicted of spying for Taiwan and ordered deported. A naturalized US citizen, China said Li Shaomin had confessed to spying - which family and friends deny, according to wire reports. The US welcomed Dr. Li's release and pressed for progress on the cases of the remaining detainees, a list that includes another US citizen and four permanent residents.
But late Friday night, politics aside, ordinary Beijing residents savored the moment. After years of opening up to the world and more than two decades of fast-paced development, the 2008 Olympics is a world stamp of approval to these urbanites. In a sign of the improvements that the city will continue to pursue for the next seven years, at a movie theater construction site, migrant workers from outside Beijing ignored the celebrations and were literally asleep on the job, at rest until sunrise, when they begin work again.
In the moments leading up to the announcement, others in the crowd began to huddle around this reporter, asking, "Why do Americans oppose our bid for the Olympics? Does the US really want to go to war with China? Do Americans really believe that China and the US are adversaries? Don't they understand that the Chinese are a friendly people?"
Yet later that night as I walked down Beijing's confetti-littered Avenue of Eternal Peace, several Chinese stepped out of the stream of people and parading cars to shake my hand. Somewhere in their joy there was also a sense of gratitude for the recognition from the international community, and shaking hands with a foreigner was maybe the best way of showing that.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor