At least in the gold medal count and as an Olympics host, Beijing has pulled it off. The world will remember China for its athletic prowess and glorious stadiums in the 2008 Games. But after Sunday's closing ceremony – which could match the opening spectacle in proclaiming China's "rise" – a different history may be written.
Sure, these Olympics were mainly about the 10,500 athletes, especially superstars such as Michael "fish-man" Phelps and Usain "Lightning" Bolt, and notably China's government-trained athletes. Beijing the city was mostly an efficient but largely colorless backdrop.
But what happened – or didn't happen – in that backdrop was the telling story on whether China has successfully opened itself to the world and earned the respect it so desperately sought from these Olympics.
The most poignant reminder of the real China under Communist Party rule was the arrests of two elderly Chinese women during the Games. They had applied to demonstrate in a special protest zone set up at the urging of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The women simply wanted to decry local officials who had evicted them from their homes. For their legal action, they now face a year of imprisonment, or "reeducation through labor."
Dozens of applications to protest were ignored. The few protests that did occur were elsewhere and quickly suppressed. Most foreigners with a record of protesting China's human rights and who wanted to be in Beijing during the Games were denied visas.
China's slogan for these Games was "One World, One Dream." If anything, the Olympics stand for the universal dream of realizing one's individual expression, notably through athletic excellence but also in many areas of life.
In China's one-party police state, however, the Olympics were designed to instill pride among the Chinese in their system of governance, not the individual. In the opening ceremony, with its goose-stepping soldiers, the mass displays of thousands of performers moving as one attested to the party's power – and its ability to hold onto it.
But the system's facade showed cracks.
It was quickly discovered, for instance, that the cute girl singing in the ceremony was lip-synching to hide the real singer, a girl whose looks didn't meet official standards.
Thousands of Beijing residents were removed to beautify the city. Social activists were rounded up, and 400,000 security forces patrolled the streets, often roughing up foreign journalists who approached political dissidents.
The average Chinese was discouraged from attending the Games, leaving many seats embarrassingly empty. The government had to bring in loyal party members to fill seats and to cheer in ordered chants. Even the weather was manipulated and city traffic cut in half to keep the skies clear.
China's leader, Hu Jintao, has hinted that political reforms might follow the Olympics. The world can only hope that the Chinese will see more freedoms soon. The IOC's desire for these Olympics to improve China's human rights record was clearly not realized.
The Games were meant to be China's coming-out party. Instead, they were a coming-out of the Communist Party's true colors.