Beijing 08
China's Olympic legacy
After seven years of living the Olympic dream, how have the games changed China?
Last Modified: 25 Aug 2008 06:58 GMT

The Olympics has delivered a major confidence boost to China and its people [GALLO/GETTY] 

For the past seven years the Olympic dream has consumed and driven China.

Its desire to hold a fabulous games has catalysed the nation's development, reshaping the capital with awe-inspiring sports venues, a cloud-scraping skyline and the world's biggest airport terminal.

Its people have been enthused with a vibrant sense of national pride, while its athletes have excelled themselves, trumping the world with a record-breaking 51 gold medals.

But with the Olympic baton now passed on to London, what will take its place?

For seven years the Olympic dream has been a national obsession [GALLO/GETTY]
After living and breathing the Olympics for seven years, for a while at least China will be able to bask in the games' success.

"Post-Olympics China, at least in the first one or two years, will be marked with triumphant glory and renewed ambition," Professor Xu Wu, a former Xinhua reporter and now professor of journalism at Arizona State university, told Al Jazeera.

In two years, he notes, Shanghai will host the 2010 World Expo, replacing the Olympic "One World, One Dream" motto for the Expo's catchphrase of "Better City, Better Life".

"I don't say that it will be a rallying point, but it certainly will keep alive foreign press interest in China," he says.

China's financial capital is expected to fork out similar sums for the six-month long Expo as Beijing did on the Olympics – roughly $40 billion. Developers have already started the ball rolling on designing a flamboyant new face for the city's Pudong district, including an exhibition hall in the shape of an emperor's crown, according to state media.

While the Expo might lack the glamour and allure of the Olympics, that is not really an issue say some commentators. Despite all the fuss made over the Olympics they are only a small blip in China's grand scheme - now it is simply back to business as normal.

"The Olympics was a driving force to push China forward but it is still within the scope of our existing development system," says Xiao Gongqin, a professor of history at Shanghai Normal University.

It is a view shared by many Beijing residents.

Shanghai will be eager to match Beijing's show in 2010 [GALLO/GETTY]
"The Olympics are just a small episode in China's development," says Meng Yong, 52, who works as a translator in the Chinese capital. "The country will see more progress and better living standards. That's what I am expecting."

On the political front there is a general consensus with both Chinese and foreign observers that the success of the Olympics has significantly bolstered domestic support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which had invested huge political capital in hosting a successful games.

"After the Olympic games, the Chinese government's credibility, prestige and authority will reach the highest point ever," notes Xiao.

Certainly China's Olympic fever arrived well before the games began - and China's leaders will be hoping it will last well after as well.

The most recent survey from the US-based Pew Research Centre, conducted in the months leading up to August 8, found that 86 per cent of Chinese people had a positive view of their country and the economy (and thus the government) – ranking China the most satisfied out of 24 nations.

China's leaders saw the games as tool to underpin their legitimacy [EPA]
Perhaps, more importantly, the sports extravaganza has also been a major confidence boost. China, bullied by the Europeans in the 19th century and isolated during the fanatical era of Chairman Mao, has used the games as a gateway to gaining international recognition.

"We used to have a very sad nationalism because we struggled through a lot of humiliation and setbacks during the last 100 years," says Xiao. "And that is not healthy because it has made us unconfident and overly sensitive. The Olympic games shows that China has already been accepted and acknowledged internationally ... Chinese people's confidence is boosted and our nationalism has become more optimistic, healthy and mature."

On a global scale, the Olympics have also fuelled the government's world power aspirations, says Professor Edward Friedman, a China expert at the University of Wisconsin.

"The goal of the CCP internationally is to establish China as a great power at least the equal of the US," he says. "So far, the [party] should feel that the Beijing games, from the facilities to the Chinese team's performance, have succeeded in moving China ahead in its preferred direction."

According to the Pew survey, a near unanimous 93 per cent of Chinese people polled believe the Olympics will improve China's international image - a confidence boost that may help China open up further says Arizona State's Professor Wu Xu.

"Through the Olympic mirror China certainly saw a strong, proud, and magnificent image of itself," he says. "This image will bury a long-endured painful memory. In my view, the collective sentiment of post-Olympics Chinese will be more redeemed, more relaxed, and thus more 'normal'."

The games saw China assert its ambitions to be a great power [GALLO/GETTY]
And a more confident China, Xiao foresees, could translate into a more liberal government.

"The reason why the party has not been willing to give its people more freedom is that they are not confident enough," he says. "As the government's confidence was boosted by the Olympics, I hope it will endow more freedom to its people."

Others though see the Olympics games as having quite the opposite effect, giving the state more leverage to disperse dissent.

"What the party has learned is that it didn't have to open up to have a successful Olympics," says William Callahan, chair professor of International Politics at Britain's University of Manchester.

"It's had some criticism in the foreign press, but Chinese people aren't reading that. [The party] have been able to use technical means to better manage dissent and to more actively create a public opinion that supports the status quo, leaving the CCP in a very strong position."

He points out that as part of the Olympics security preparations a raft of extra restrictions were enforced such as tighter visa regulations on foreigners and wiring Beijing under a web of surveillance cameras. These controls, he says, are likely to be kept long after the games are over.

Thus, the upshot of the Olympics could be the opposite of what the International Olympic Committee promised when it awarded Beijing the games back in 2001, he says.

"Rather than China being more open it could end up being more controlled."

Al Jazeera
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