China was intent on making a splash with the 2008 Olympics, which concluded on Sunday, and it did just that. The games are being described as the best ever, thanks to great organization, impressive Olympic venues, stunning opening and closing ceremonies, an army of 70,000 smiling volunteers, and the amazing performances by athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt.
And, for China, there was a record 51 gold medals.
But it was not an entirely golden occasion.
The games fell far short of accomplishing what many, perhaps unrealistically, had hoped for—to see the authoritarian Communist Party of China, in the world's spotlight, move toward becoming a kinder and gentler regime. Indeed, there was a lot of commentators' talk about this marking China's full engagement with the world, a sort of coming-out party for a "new China."
Instead, the Communist rulers stayed true to form and did pretty much as they wished while the International Olympic Committee and international community played along for the most part. In the end, the Olympics were a tool for strengthening the party's tight grip on power, rather than being an agent of change.
This could be seen before the games kicked off. Determined to make this "the best games ever," the government forced some 1.5 million Chinese out of their homes—often with little or no compensation—to make way for Olympic venues and beautification projects. Countless hawkers, beggars, construction workers, prostitutes, trash collectors, and migrant laborers were removed from the streets and were sent back to their villages or to detention centers. Ten prominent human rights activists, dubbed the Olympics prisoners, were given prison sentences for criticizing the games.
This policy continued during the games. Ding Zilin, the mother of a 17-year-old son who was killed on the night of June 4, 1989, and the founder of the Mothers of Tiananmen, and Wan Yanhai, a leading AIDS activist, were among several activists taking forced holidays outside the capital. And Zeng Jinyan, the 24-year-old blogger and wife of imprisoned dissident Hu Jia, and her 8-month-old baby, disappeared altogether.
In a throwback to George Orwell's Animal Farm, the Communist authorities set up three Protest Zones in parks where legal demonstrations could be held. Of the 77 applications submitted, not one was approved. Indeed, 15 people were arrested for being foolish enough to believe the government was serious. This includes Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, who have been threatened with a year in a re-education-through-labor camp. The two wished to protest against officials who evicted them from their homes in 2001.
While foreign journalists were free to cover sporting events, in many cases, they were harassed, beaten, and even arrested by the police, who prevented them from reporting on sensitive issues and even talking to Chinese citizens. According to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, there were more than 30 cases of reporting interference from July 25, the day of the opening of the Olympic Media Center, with the most disturbing trend the increase in the incidence of police roughing up or beating reporters and breaking their cameras. Foreign journalists also complained about restrictions on travel to places like Tibet and in Xinjiang, and the blocking of Internet websites.
Two American videobloggers were detained for covering pro-Tibetan activists and were sentenced to 10 days in prison for "disrupting public order." Dozens of foreign protesters were detained and deported.
China watchers are now debating the impact of the Olympics on China, and whether or not it will have the same reforming effect it had on South Korea in 1988. Some argue that a more self-confident China will move down the road to reform.
But others say that Beijing, which made few concessions on human rights before and during the Olympics, will have little incentive to do so now.
Hong Kong-based China scholar Willy Lam predicts that the pre-Olympic security buildup will make it easier to crack down after the games. He predicts reprisals against a number of "troublemakers" in accordance with the Chinese tradition of "taking revenge after the autumn harvest."
(Paul Mooney is a correspondent based in Beijing.)