BEIJING | A spectacular closing ceremony at nightfall Sunday will culminate in the extinguishing of the Olympic flame that for the last two weeks has burned above the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium.
Then the tough questions can be asked - starting with whether the Beijing Games justified the incredible $44 billion that were lavished upon them.
Except that most Chinese, like 21-year-old Wu Bo, a university student from eastern Anhui province on his first trip to the capital, see no need for even the most cursory of postmortems. They made up their minds two weeks ago.
“These Olympics have been the most successful in history, and coming to see them has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Mr. Wu, as he took a picture of a leafy replica of the Great Wall that has been erected in the downtown area.
“Cost just isn’t an issue, because hosting the Olympics is a long-term plan for the whole of China. The stadiums will be used again. The economy will be boosted, and the Olympics will have consolidated China’s international status.”
Similar exhortations of pride flow from the crowds that gather outside the perimeter fence that surrounds the Olympic Green. They have no tickets to the athletics, but are lapping up the triumphal atmosphere before it fades away.
“China’s national image has been changed for the better by these Olympics. We have won a lot of gold medals, which symbolizes the strength of the people and the country,” said Morrison Zhang, 24, a public relations executive for Sony China.
Even Liu Wenming, who is livid with the authorities for trying to evict her from her home in one of Beijing’s oldest residential areas, has tapped into the celebratory spirit.
“Although I have been treated unfairly by the government, I am still Chinese. I am passionate about this country. The Chinese people have stuck together and shown foreigners coming to the Olympics what China is,” she said, sporting a red-and-white polo shirt worn by Olympic public security volunteers.
For the Chinese government, the outpouring of positivity from the people is proof that the Beijing Olympics have been a resounding success.
Analysts have long maintained that the leadership’s primary aim through hosting the games was to bolster its legitimacy at home and prove the country’s power to its own people. This has been achieved with ease.
The Olympics were also viewed as an opportunity for China to put on its best face for the world. That may have been achieved only superficially. Walls were constructed around the city to hide ramshackle buildings that eluded the beautification drive.
The general reaction from tourists visiting China for the first time has been overwhelmingly positive. The spotless streets and the ever-smiling, English-speaking volunteers betray no sign of the grimy human rights record that lies beneath the gleam.
The government, eager to show that it could tolerate an opinion at odds with its own, announced that protest zones would be set up in three parks around the city for anyone wishing to rally to a cause.
But by the end of the Olympics, the government seemed willing to sacrifice its international image for internal stability.
Foreign activists who unfurled the Tibetan flag last week were handed 10-day detentions after previous pro-Tibet demonstrators had only suffered instant deportation in what seemed to be a sign that the authorities had lost patience with the art of restraint.
Several Chinese were arrested for applying to protest at the official protest parks. The authorities received 77 applications to protest, all of which they rejected, propelling the parks to one of the biggest talking points of the games, at least outside China.
Two female applicants in their 70s were threatened with one-year terms of “re-education through labor,” provoking further condemnation from human rights groups.
“The 2008 Beijing Games have put an end - once and for all - to the notion that these Olympics are a force for good,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“The reality 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.”
The Chinese government has been showered with praise from the International Olympic Committee, which, while quiet on the political shortcomings of the games’ hosts, has celebrated Beijing’s organizational prowess, stunning venues and efficient transport system.
World leaders, including President Bush, attended the opening ceremony after talk of boycotts following unrest in Tibet in March all but vanished.
And sports fans will remember the Beijing Olympics for the eight gold medals won by U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and a world record glut from Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt - not for political repression.
Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore, said the government can also count on the fact that most Chinese don’t approve of their own people challenging the concept of a harmonious society in full view of the globe.
“When the Chinese people talk of the Olympics, they link them to 100 years of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. They believe that the Olympics are not the right time to protest. It’s an interesting attitude. It’s not quite patriotism, not quite nationalism. It’s something more than that, something independent from everything else,” he said.
Many ordinary Chinese are unaware of the criticism their government has received during the games, believing that the world cannot fail to be bowled over by the incredible efficiency on display.
“The Olympics have been a great opportunity for the world to get to know China,” said engineer Xing Yang, against the backdrop of the Bird’s Nest glowing in red light.
“Everyone can see how well China can organize a major event and make sure the security is tight,” he said.
The anticipated flood of protests from pro-Tibet groups never really materialized. The New York-based Students for a Free Tibet settled for eight isolated demonstrations that were quickly quashed by the Chinese authorities.
The government would have been concerned about an ugly public reaction to any unfurling of Tibetan flags or cries of “Free Tibet,” particularly in light of the vitriolic response that followed the torch-relay protests, but for the Chinese it was just a handful of foreigners causing trouble.
“They were just individual cases, and the media didn’t carry them much. People don’t care about them, and I certainly don’t care about them,” said Mr. Xing.
“I actually feel sorry for those activists, as they are not to blame,” said Web designer Li Jianfeng. “They have misunderstandings about China because they have been misled by the biased Western media.”
There were, of course, some grumbles inside a country of 1.3 billion people. Chinese small businesses complained that tougher visa restrictions imposed on foreign business travelers were threatening their existence. Hotels and restaurants banking on columns of Olympic tourists marching into Beijing have been sorely disappointed.
Some of the most fervent criticism has come from Bird’s Nest designer Ai Weiwei. He has talked of Beijing’s “pretend smile,” questioning whether “a society that doesn’t have democracy [can] excite the joys and celebrations of its people.”
There was certainly fakery at work. The opening ceremony caused a storm of online debate when it was discovered that one of the young singers mimed to the voice of a 7-year-old girl whose toothless smile was thought to be too unattractive. Much of the elaborate fireworks display seen around the world on television and in photos was later revealed to have been digitally enhanced.
But the jubilant scenes outside Mr. Ai’s most famous work are real. And it seems the Chinese people are willing to forgive a little artistic license.
“I did doubt whether the Olympics were going to be worth it, but when I saw the opening ceremony, I changed my mind. Everything has been absolutely perfect,” Mr. Xing said.