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What China wants from the Games

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

The Chinese and Olympic flags fly over the Bird's Nest stadium on 2 August 2008
China's ambitions for a glorious Games have been dampened by politics

After winning the right to host this summer's Olympics, China was ecstatic. Officials promised the greatest Games ever held.

But that kind of colourful language has been quietly dropped. China now says its top priority is simply to provide a safe Olympic Games.

The change in tone comes after a year in which China's image has been dented over its links with Sudan, the torch relay and unrest in Tibet.

China hoped to showcase all it had achieved over the past 30 years since opening up to the outside world, but outside criticism has changed all that.

'Powerful, not backward'

There seems little doubt that China expected a glorious Olympic Games.

Speaking after being awarded the event in 2001, Liu Jingmin, vice-mayor of Beijing, looked forward with great hope.

"We have seven years to ensure that our country and our city are ready to host the best Olympic Games in the history of the world," he told state media.

China seemed eager to show the rest of the world how it had changed from a poor, isolated country into one with growing strength and prosperity.

"Hosting the Olympics would both mark China's triumphant arrival as a fully respectable country on the world scene and demonstrate exactly that to the population at home," said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at New York's Columbia University.

The banner which reads: "Seize the opportunity of a century to realise the dream of a century".
Hosting the Games has been a long-time dream of the Chinese authorities

At a rare briefing for foreign journalists last week, Chinese President Hu Jintao said that as far back as 1908 some of his countrymen had wanted to host the Olympics.

That thought is perfectly expressed in a slogan that has appeared in parts of Beijing. "Seize the opportunity of a century to realise the dream of a century," it says.

Holding the Olympics also seems to satisfy a deep psychological need in China.

Before the Communists took power in 1949, the once-great China suffered the humiliation of occupation by Western powers and Japan.

Being able to stage the greatest sporting event on earth goes some way to showing other countries that China can now compete on an equal footing.

Officially, China talks about the more noble aspects of the Games - promoting sport for all, spreading the Olympic spirit and creating a "green" legacy.

But on the streets, ordinary people have a less complicated understanding of what the Olympics means for the country.

"It will show that China is now powerful, not backward," said 35-year-old Beijing resident Li Xiaowen.

Scaling back

But events this year changed the script, leaving the Chinese government - and the country's people - feeling hurt and misunderstood.

The resignation of Hollywood film-maker Steven Spielberg as an artistic director to the Olympic Games in February was a foretaste of what was to come.

Mr Spielberg resigned over what he saw as China's refusal to put pressure on the Sudanese government to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

Steven Spielberg, on 18 May 2008
Spielberg's move led a series of challenges for China's Olympics

Chinese officials lashed out at all those linking the Olympics with Darfur, saying it was unfair to connect a far-off African region with the Olympics.

The riots and demonstrations in Tibetan areas in March, and then the angry reception that greeted the torch relay in many international capitals, only strengthened this feeling.

Chinese officials - and the country's people, after government prompting - turned on the Western media, whom they believed were distorting the truth about China.

Xu Guoqi, whose book "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008" has just been published, says China was genuinely surprised at how the world viewed the country.

"China devised the slogan 'One world, one dream' for the Olympics, but the rest of the world doesn't share that dream with them," he said.

That has led to China quietly scaling back its expectations for this summer's Games. Now it seems to be promising no more than a safe event.

"Safety is our top concern," Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping said recently, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.

Smartened up

That does not mean that China is not trying hard to impress the tens of thousands of world leaders, athletes and spectators expected in Beijing for the Games.

Beijing looks as good as it has ever done in recent times.

There are flowers everywhere, migrant workers have been sent away, streets have been cleaned up and prostitutes have shut up shop for the time being.

Even taxi drivers are wearing brand new yellow shirts with matching ties - they will be fined 200 yuan ($29, 15) if they take them off.

Mr Xu, who is also a professor of history and East Asian affairs at Kalamazoo College in the US, said this Olympics could still be the greatest ever.

He said it would probably have the largest audience of any other Olympics, and have a profound influence on China - and be the most controversial.





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