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Commonwealth Games 2002

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Sunday, 15 July, 2001, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Beijing celebrates Olympic image
Fireworks erupt over Beijing's millennium monument
There were unprecedented celebrations in China
By Matt Frei in Beijing

No doubt the International Olympic Committee hope their decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to the Chinese capital, Beijing, will be the most significant of this new century.

Whether this will alter the nature of the regime in China with its widely condemned human rights record is open to question.

Democracy, human rights. They're not the main issue. There is something far more important here. The world is embracing us, China

Li, a philosophy student
The most immediate impact so far has been to unleash a wave of unprecedented celebrations in China.

"What's the plan for the rest of the evening?" I asked the student of transportation with a skin problem.

"When we win, there will be a big party." WHEN we win.

At the millennium altar in the heart of the capital - a giant monument built for giant public events that looks like an overturned saucer - the crowd seemed to think that the Beijing Olympics were a foregone conclusion.

Thank God they did win. The student carried on waving his red flag and singing that old favourite, "I love my red banner with its five stars".


In Tiananmen Square thousands have converged without having been told to do so by the regime - the first unscripted mass gathering for over ten years.

This time the students were not demonstrating; they were doing the conga.

A young girl walks past the Tiananmen Gate
The games should erase the unpleasant memory of Tiananmen Square events
Genuine spontaneity in China is a rare thing. It can also be scary.

Some of the same people who had ordered the 1989 massacre could be seen soaking up the adulation of the jubilant masses.

Li-Peng, the former prime minister, who was instrumental in the crackdown, could now be seen grinning from ear to ear.

The Olympic Games will help to erase the unpleasant memory of events in the square below.

Nationalist fever

And, of course, President Jiang Zemin, so overjoyed about the thumbs-up from the IOC, seemed to be on the point of spontaneous combustion.

The only glum face was today's prime minister, Zhu Rongji, a sceptic and a reformer, who has recently fallen into some disfavour.

He looked ashen-faced and deeply perplexed. Why, I wondered.

A Beijing woman shows a kite with an Olympic design
There has been a whiff of mass mobilisation for the Olympic bid
Perhaps he thought: "Now that we've created this nationalist fever, what are we going to do with it?"

Jiang Zemin and the party have spent the last few years nurturing the alternative religion of nationalism - over Taiwan, over Tibet, over American spy planes. And they could see the fruits of their labour.

Tens of thousands of citizens, young and old, crying hysterically that China was finally going to... well... host a sports event. This was genuine Olympic fever.

The bid for the games was not just a question of a capital city hosting some athletics, and no one here whinged about money or disruption to traffic as they did in Sydney.

Continuous history

This was a matter of national honour, of China finally being recognised by the rest of the world - for its size, for its spectacular growth, for its potential.

And as we kept being told over and over again, for its 4,000 - or was it 5,000? - years of continuous history.

By the way, much of that continuous history has been flattened in recent years to make way for Olympian shopping malls, hotels and spaghetti junctions.

When Atlanta, Sydney or Athens bid for the games, everyone talked about the cities. But this time they talked about the nation.

Unchannelled emotions

Li, a frighteningly articulate 19-year old philosophy student, came up to me.

"Democracy, human rights. They're not the main issue. There is something far more important here. The world is embracing us, China," he said.

Chinese students celebrate in Beijing
Hosting the Olympics was a matter of national honour
His geeky friends cheered hysterically. A pretty young girl kissed him on the cheek. He blushed. More answers like this and he might get lucky, I thought.

Clearly inspired, another young man approached me.

"I hope that now we have the Olympics, you'll report more objectively about us," he said. I felt like punching him.

There is a lot of anger, resentment and excess energy in China that has nowhere to go.

The regime is forever trying to channel these emotions, rather like an old-fashioned PE teacher at a boarding school who tries to diffuse the ructions of puberty with endless physical exercise.

More democracy?

There has been a whiff of mass mobilisation about the Olympic bid: the new fitness parks on the pavements of Beijing; the collective rope skip involving 2,008 children; the campaign to teach taxi drivers English and make them less surly; and the mass mobilisation of good manners.

I have no doubt that Beijing will host a dazzling Olympics. But will the games make the country more democratic? I seriously doubt it.

If anything, they will be used by the authorities as an excuse to stamp out unseemly opposition to save face.

But China is also a volatile country. Moods can swing suddenly without warning.

Our translator pointed out that the patriotic songs sung by the near-hysterical students at the millennium altar were the very same ones sung in Tiananmen Square in 1989 before the tanks moved in.

Those demonstrators also thought they were being patriotic by calling for change. The regime disagreed.

No wonder then that thousands of police and public security officials looked on nervously as the city cheered with tears in its eyes.

See also:

14 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Beijing revels in Olympics victory
13 Jul 01 | Business
Beijing win is big business
13 Jul 01 | Olympic Votes
Beijing handed Olympic Games
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