Olympic success bolsters China's sense that it's a world power

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 23, 2008 

BEIJING — China's grand Olympic performance will raise the standing of the ruling Communist Party at home and perhaps serve as a "Sputnik moment" for the United States about China's rising power, analysts say.

The massive gold medal haul of China's athletes has left its citizens elated.

"China's performance in the Olympics reflects China's true strength and status in the world nowadays," Han Qiaosheng, a television sports commentator, wrote in an opinion piece Saturday in the Beijing News.

Foreign athletes have marveled at the new venues and organization of the Beijing Games, offering high praise and few complaints. Even the weather has cooperated. Winds and rain cleaned the air of perpetual haze and smog that normally blanket China's capital.

"China can pat itself on the back and say, 'We've done a good job. As a result, why do we need to change anything?'" said Shawn Shieh, a political scientist at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who is based in Beijing.

"I don't think they'll be any significant change either in the way they govern or the way they manage their international image."

The Communist Party, which has ruled since 1949 and remains communist in name only, has put enormous stock in its ability to carry off a successful, safe Olympic Games. Analysts say the achievement will be an important shot in the arm for the party's leadership, and particularly Vice President Xi Jinping, the man who took charge of preparations who is heir apparent to President Hu Jintao.

While the triumph of the Olympics may not directly change China's behavior in any measurable degree, ordinary Chinese are already adopting a self-confident attitude and a can-do optimism about their country's capabilities and position in the world.

"China has expanded her international influence in the world, and enhanced her image on the international stage," a blogger who goes by the name Tie Zheng wrote Saturday on Sina.com, China's most popular web portal.

But if China's success at the Games is a boon to its leaders, the Chinese athletes' sharp outclassing of U.S. Olympians may send minor shock waves across the Pacific, knocking the United States off from atop the medals table for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

"I hope this is a 'Sputnik moment' for the United States because China is rising fast and has big ambitions," said Jamie F. Metzl, the executive vice president of the Asia Society, a group that seeks to foster cooperation and mutual understanding around the Pacific region.

Metzl referred to October 1957 when the Soviet launch of the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth stirred fear and debate among U.S. citizens who underestimated Soviet capabilities.

"The Olympics experience of China is a symbol of something much bigger, and that's a change of the international order," Metzl said, adding that the U.S. reign as a sole superpower is eroding. "We don't know what a post-American world will look like."

No one can publicly measure how much support Chinese rulers enjoy, but a recent survey conducted for the Pew Research Center showed that 86 percent of Chinese are satisfied with their country's direction, far ahead of any other country.

What remains unclear is if some actions taken for the hosting of the Olympic Games will stay in effect afterward, such as measures adopted to clean the air pollution above the city.

Also unclear is if emboldened ruling party cadres will put a tighter squeeze on dissent knowing that they have solidified support among the majority of the citizenry. In the run-up to the games, authorities exercised a firm grip on the domestic media and tightened security measures to ensure the appearance of "social harmony" during the Olympics.

Foreign media watchdogs say the control remains tight.

"The Beijing Olympic games have been a period conducive to arrests, convictions, censorship, surveillance and harassment of more than 100 journalists, bloggers and dissidents," Robert Menard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group, said in a statement.

The group said at least 50 human rights activists were put under house arrest, harassed or forced to leave Beijing during the games, and that 15 Chinese citizens were arrested for requesting permission to demonstrate at one of three public parks set up for such purposes during the Olympic Games.

The issue of the "protest parks" underscored China's willingness to make apparent concessions to Western demands for freedom of expression while in fact doing so only in word, not deed. All 77 applications for protests permits were either withdrawn or rejected.

Wang Wei, the chief spokesman for the Olympic Games, earlier in the week supported police assertions that all the disputes leading to requests to protest had largely been resolved.

"The Chinese culture always emphasizes the concept of harmony, so if it can be resolved through mediation and the divorce is withdrawn, then everybody is very happy about that," Wang said.

"Other countries may not think that is very good but in China, we think it is a good thing."

(McClatchy special correspondent Yu Jincui contributed to this report.)

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