Page last updated at 05:54 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 06:54 UK

Where next for post-Games China?

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Workers dismantle the five-ring Olympic emblem
Chinese workers tidy away Olympic banners after a successful Games

When the closing ceremony had finished, a group of stadium workers and performers gathered around a podium in the centre of the Bird's Nest.

In an apparently spontaneous gathering long after the spectators had left, they held aloft a giant red flag of China and cheered.

For them, as for much of China, the Olympics was an unmitigated success.

But will the Olympics prove to be the catalyst for change the International Olympic Committee says it will?

The Olympics in Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988 both marked turning points in the development of Japan and South Korea.

Many hope it will be the same for Beijing.

China changes?

The day after the Beijing Games ended, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said he believed it would prove to be a pivotal moment.

"Holding the Olympics was good in terms of China taking a more democratic path. We believe this is an irreversible path," he said.

China experts are similarly optimistic, believing an increasingly confident China will carry on the policy of opening up that it began 30 years ago.

Olympics closing ceremony banners reach for the sky
China's Olympics closing ceremony set new standards of aspiration
This policy has resulted in dramatic chances to society and the economy, but the Communist Party still has a strangle-hold over the political system, where little has changed.

Hong Kong-based China commentator Johnny Lau is optimistic that the Olympics will leave a positive legacy.

Bu he added: "We have to be patient because China will not change so dramatically in a short period of time."

Others doubt the Games will usher in a new era of reform in China.

The Olympics showed many of China's better aspects, such as its organisational ability and the warm welcome it gives visitors.

But for anyone who cared to look, Chinese leaders also showed they were as obsessed as ever about control.

Doubts persist

Despite promises to allow at least some dissent during the Olympics, China allowed none; there were no protests in the protest parks set up to allow locals to vent their feelings.

Wang Xiuying, right, and Wu Dianyuan
Wang Xiuying, right, and Wu Dianyuan applied to stage their own protest
Two grandmothers, both nearly 80, were threatened with one year in a re-education-through-labour camp after applying to protest.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said at least 59 reporters were harassed while trying to do their jobs.

The US embassy in China was also moved to comment.

"We are disappointed that China has not used the occasion of the Olympics to demonstrate greater tolerance and openness," it said in a statement released on the day of the closing ceremony.

Pressure is growing inside and outside the government with genuine political reforms ... sorely needed
Wang Xiangwei, deputy editor, South China Morning Post

Chinese people are also talking about what happens now. Some of them are debating the more practical benefits enjoyed during the Games.

One of those is the relatively clean air in Beijing for the last couple of weeks.

Officials introduced a series of measures to reduce pollution during the Games, including restrictions on driving.

The result has been more blue-sky days during the Olympics than smoggy ones. Beijing residents have noticed - and they like it.

They have also noticed that the transport system runs much more smoothly with half the city's cars off the roads.

Many internet users say they want the emergency measures to continue after the end of the Paralympics later this month, according to an article in the Beijing News.

"I don't want to go back to the feeling I had before the traffic measures of being stuck in traffic jams every day," the newspaper reported one man as saying.

Reform regardless?

Some commentators are also looking at the bigger picture; what direction China will take now the Olympics are over.

Cyclist in front of fog-shrouded skyscrapers 2007
Pre-Olympics pollution raised fears the Games would be hurt
In a recent commentary piece in Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post, one writer believed the answer was further opening up.

The author, of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School, said China needed to open up internally as well as to the outside world.

"China not only needs economic liberalisation, it needs openness in all aspects of society even more," said Deng Yuwen.

It is an indication that at least some people inside China hope the Olympics will act as a catalyst for future change.

Wang Xiangwei, deputy editor of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, urged China's leaders to continue with much-needed reforms.

"Pressure is growing both inside and outside the government, with genuine political reforms, including accountability and transparency and separation of powers, sorely needed," he wrote.

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