As Beijing bids farewell to the world a brief assessment of the Olympic Games
The dazzling closing ceremony, a bit more austere than the opening ceremony, began at 8 pm (noon GMT) in a stadium overflowing with spectators, athletes, acrobats, singers, drums, lights and extras. At its centre stood a round stage inside a square, a suggestive hint of the altar in the Temple of Heaven, where according to Chinese symbolism sky meets earth.
Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Fiona Lewis and star footballer David Beckham took to the stage to invite the world to the next Games in London (United Kingdom). Spanish-Mexican tenor Plácido Domingo and Chinese soprano Song Zuying highlighted the Olympics’ international flavour.
At a morning banquet thrown by Hu Jintao for international and political dignitaries, the Chinese president praised the Olympic atmosphere for its “spirit of solidarity, friendship and peace”, which “further enhance[d] the mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese people and people of all other countries.”
There was also plenty of rhetorical language in artistic director Zhang Yimou’s message. “The Olympic flame is not extinguished,” said the brain behind the opening and closing ceremonies. “Instead, it will burn in the heart of each of us. [. . .] “We will miss you too and remember every moment of these few weeks forever. Therefore, let us sing this theme song again: You and me, from one world, heart to heart, we are one family.”
In his closing speech IOC President Jacques Rogge said that “through these Games the world learned more about China and China learned more about the world,” he described the Beijing Games as “truly exceptional”.
Indeed for the International Olympic Committee these Games where really exceptional, one China-size commercial bonanza. Counting sponsors, TV rights and the international torch relay (with its own sponsors), the Beijing Olympics should bring in some US$ five billion, with the possibility of seven over the next four years; almost twice as much what Athens raked in.
Now that the Olympic flag is in the care of Boris Johnson, the mayor of London whose city will host the next Olympic Games in 2012, we can start to take stock of the edition that just ended.
China came first in many fields. Everyone agrees that the organisation, infrastructures and services were beyond compare, much of it due to the myriads of zealous employees but also to government fiat that allowed the authorities to get rid of local traffic, decree forced holidays for Beijingers, set aside special lanes for Olympic vehicles, shut down and move out factories in the blink of an eye, leaving tens of thousands without a job.
China also won the sport challenge. For the first time in history it outperformed the United States in terms of gold medals—51 vs 36—, thus becoming a sport as well as an economic and political superpower.
“The achievements we have made in this Olympic Games are a very important driving force for the future,” said Sports Minister Liu Peng.
Where Beijing lost was in the area of human rights.
The foreign press association in China slammed the use of violence, intimidation and abuses against journalists.
“The reality,” said Sophie Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, “is that the Chinese government's hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression.”
And for ordinary Chinese silence was de rigueur. Beijingers had to stay at home “for security reasons” whilst the few parks set aside for protest were left conspicuously empty. The 77 applications to demonstrate did not get the necessary permit; instead, dissidents, activists, Protestant clergymen as well as Catholic bishops and priests were arrested. Anyone daring to say anything untoward was crushed, like the two little old ladies, Ms Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Ms Wang Xiuying, 77, who dared to complain about being expropriated out of their homes, and got a year of forced labour for their trouble.
And yet the show of force by security forces and the tight controls did not stop incidents in Xingjian or pro-Free Tibet banners and graffiti elsewhere.
All this shows is that whilst the Chinese juggernaut is very powerful, it is also very fragile, its protective firewall full of cracks and leaks.
Unrest and dissatisfaction, which have become so commonplace in China, ought to be a warning for the government. Chinese rulers can no longer run the country without giving a voice to its people.
A Chinese analyst—who preferred to remain anonymous—said that as China’s and the world economies decline (with the Shanghai Stock Exchange losing 50 per cent since the start of the year), it is likely that unrest among farmers and industrial workers will rise and turn more violent.
Should this be the case it will become necessary to live up to the much vaunted Olympic ideals of solidarity, friendship and peace if the country is to avoid a civil war.