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CHINA: Millennium Olympics?

Analysis by Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Aug 24 2008 (IPS) - As the curtain falls on the Beijing Olympics, the race is on to define the legacy of one of the most controversial games in history. For the host country, these are the "millennium games", which herald the dawn of the ‘Asian century’ where China reigns supreme.

The Olympic flame at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium.  Credit: Antoaneta Bezlova/IPS

The Olympic flame at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium. Credit: Antoaneta Bezlova/IPS

But for human rights defenders, the labels for the games vary from the "genocide Olympics" to the "Olympics of repression".

Did China dazzle or did it not? Did the outside world see the real face of this up and coming superpower? The gap of perceptions between China and the outside world looms ever larger in the definition of these much contested games.

The tone of Chinese media has been one of utmost affirmation. "These are the millennium Olympics," declared an editorial in the China Times. "The 21st century belongs to Asia and Beijing Olympics are its most befitting symbol".

"The Olympics of China’s renaissance,’’ appraised the 21st Century Business Herald, reminding outsiders that back in 1830 China was a rich country, which accounted for one third of the world’s economic output. "The current rise of China is merely a reinstatement of the old status quo," it said.

‘The Beijing Olympic Games are a milestone in the course of the great reinvigoration of the China nation," a commentary by the government’s Xinhua News Agency concurred.

The comeback from a century of weakness and humiliation when China was referred to as the "sick man of Asia" is being portrayed here as a victory delivered to the people by the Communist party. An astounding amount of work had gone into perfecting the timing and setting of the Olympic games so as to fit the big picture of China’s rebirth as a great country.

"Everything is permeated with the idea that this rare combination of cosmic luck and national honour has been delivered to the people by their leaders,’’ says Liu Junning, an analyst with the Chinese Cultural Studies Institute in Beijing.

As rulers of a one-party state, Chinese leaders do not have to worry about their ratings of approval with the public. Yet appearances suggest that their legitimacy has been boosted with the staging of the successful games.

A billion people are estimated to have watched the Aug. 8 opening ceremony. According to the International Olympic Committee, the Beijing games have been the most watched Olympic games ever. Tourists have come and gone dazzled by the stunning Olympic venues, the superb organisation and warm reception in Beijing.

To top it all, China put a show of sporting prowess, bagging the largest number of golds in the history of its Olympic participation. For the first time too, China overtook the United States in the gold medal count. The U.S. won in the overall medal count.

Seen from here, there is little evident controversy to spoil the big China celebration. Chinese authorities revoked the visa of U.S. Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek, a prominent critic of China’s reputed role in the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. However irked they were by the "genocide Olympics" label that Darfur-cause advocates have come up with, they managed to contain the debate on China’s role in the Darfur crises on the fringes of the Olympics.

Draconian security measures ensured that no protests marred the course of the games.

Having set up three protest zones, Beijing leaders then refused to grant any permits to people who wanted to protest. Two elderly women in their seventies were sentenced this week to a year of "re-education through labour" after they repeatedly sought a permit to demonstrate their wrongful eviction from their Beijing homes.

Journalists covering the few isolated attempts by foreigners to stage protests were roughed up and threatened. The offenders were quickly expelled and no domestic media ever mentioned the incidents.

But reminders of the controversy surrounding China’s hosting of the games kept cropping up even as the hosts marched towards their great finale.

The Dalia Lama condemned firings at Tibetan protesters that took place this week as Beijing hosted the Olympics. Speaking in France, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said Chinese troops fired on a crowd on August 18 in the Kham region in eastern Tibet, killing and wounding protesters.

In an interview with Le Monde, the Dalai Lama said that since March 400 Tibetans have been killed in a Chinese crackdown in the Tibetan capital alone. "Killed by bullets, even though they were protesting without weapons. Their bodies were never given back to their families. If you consider the whole of Tibet, the number of victims is obviously higher," he was quoted as saying.

Unrest erupted in Lhasa in March after four days of protests against Chinese rule. China’s harsh response to it drew protests during the Olympic torch relay in many countries. In the run up to the Olympics and during their early days, militant Uighur minorities in the restive Xinjiang region carried out several attacks on government and police personnel.

But in Beijing the games proceeded behind a great wall of security.

"As we feared, the Beijing Olympic games have been a period conducive to arrests, convictions, censorship, surveillance and harassment of more than 100 journalists, bloggers and dissidents," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a statement.

"This repression will be remembered as one of the defining characteristics of the Beijing games", he said.

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