China's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics thrust the Asian
nation into the international spotlight and is viewed by many
inside the country as a way to showcase how far the communist
regime has come in opening up to the world over the past few decades.
the infrastructure front, China spent tens of billions of dollars
to build a new stadium and aquatics center, expand Beijing's subway
and airport, and provide other logistical support and services
in time for the Aug. 8-24 games.
While some commercial enterprises in China may benefit from the
games, the overall expenditures involved in hosting the Olympics
will likely make it far less of an economic boon and more about
improving China's international standing.
The Chinese government had observed how the Olympic Games elevated
the standing of other Asian countries, such as Japan and South
Korea, and wanted the same for itself, said Ming Wan, director
of the global affairs program at George Mason University.
"The whole thing is about China's image and international
prestige," agreed Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings
The Olympics loomed large in the country and were the primary
focus of the Chinese media until a powerful earthquake hit the
country's central Sichuan Province on May 12, killing tens of
The earthquake itself likely will not hamper the Olympics logistically,
but appears to have had a rallying effect in China, at least in
the short term, said Wan. Since the disaster struck, the Olympic
torch relay, already given the theme "journey of harmony,"
has started each day of its run inside China with one minute of
silence in honor of the quake victims.
In addition to the prestige factor, China also sought the games
to help solidify its stance as a sports powerhouse and to gain
international recognition for progress made since the country
opened up to the world in 1978, said Minxin Pei, senior associate
in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International
"Having always felt that they have not got much respect
from the international community, the Chinese public feels that
hosting the Olympics will give them such an opportunity -- an
opportunity to demonstrate China's confidence, achievement, and
status as a rising power," he said.
Winning the Olympic bid brought with it the underlying assumption
that the games would help the country "open up" and
be on the right course politically, economically and in the area
of human rights, said Li.
"The Olympics can be seen as a turning point for China,"
he said. "It's a coming of age party."
The country has made progress economically and politically, Li
continued, along with the areas of labor safety, travel freedoms
and economic rights.
the issue of human rights -- much debated when China first sought
to host the games -- again came under intense scrutiny when the
broke out over China's rule of Tibet in the months leading
up to the games.
Additionally, on the media front, efforts to loosen restrictions
on foreign journalists in the country were not adhered to
in some quarters.
"It was generally understood that the Olympics would help
make China more open," said Wan. "Now people debate
whether China is living up to that promise, and many thought it
was falling short."
When a March 2008 crackdown on protests in Tibet prompted an
international outcry and threats from various world leaders to
boycott the Olympics Opening Ceremony, it was considered a "huge
embarrassment" to China, said Li.
"It's like a family having a wedding, and then at the last
minute seeing a boycott of the wedding," he said. "It's
an insult of their feelings."
A cycle was emerging -- people thought China should be more open
and tolerant, then the government would take a tough stance, invoking
international criticism, which would lead to further tightening
by the government, explained Wan.
The Olympics will undoubtedly be a high-stakes event for China
internationally -- but domestically as well, since the Chinese
government considers them a way to prove its legitimacy to its
1.3 billion citizens.
"The Communist Party is very eager to demonstrate to the
Chinese people that their government has international respect
and legitimacy. That's why the Chinese government has spent so
much political capital to try to get practically all the foreign
leaders to attend the opening ceremony on Aug. 8," said Pei.
Most Chinese support the Olympics, said Wan, whether they feel
strongly about their country or just about sports. Whether the
Olympics lead to more freedoms of press or speech, only time will
tell, he said.
"Even though this seems negative, this could be the start
of dialogues," said Wan. "All political discussions
will lead to political openness."