Across a Nation, Olympic Fervor

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 29, 2008

SHENYANG, China -- Chen Guangbing's horizon is largely confined to Zhong Jie, a crowded pedestrian street cutting through central Shenyang where he hawks peanuts, pistachios and cashews from a rickety wooden table.

But Chen, 28, feels something big and life-expanding is about to happen here, broadening the world of his little nut stand, running the length of Zhong Jie, embracing Shenyang and illuminating the whole of China. The Olympics are coming to Beijing in August, he knows, and for Chen and more than a billion other Chinese, the Games are a milestone in this country's often dolorous history.

Up and down China's political, social and economic hierarchy, from new millionaires to dirt farmers, party cadres to protesters, the country has embraced its role as Olympics host with an ardor and unanimity rarely matched in previous Games.

The enthusiasm does not stem from the love of sports, though. Rather, the Olympics are being interpreted here as a testament to how far the country has come over three decades of economic reforms and modernization.

Beijing's selection as the 2008 Olympic venue is widely seen here as a blessing by other countries of the Communist Party's achievements during that time and a show of faith in its promises to push forward with more changes, including political liberalization. Perhaps most of all, the Beijing Games provide Chinese with validation of the national pride that is swelling here after a long stretch during which most Chinese felt left behind and cut off from their rightful place in the world.

"You're darn right it is a good thing, and I'll tell you why," Chen said from behind his display of nuts on Zhong Jie, his breath coming out in little puffs on a frigid afternoon in northeastern China. "The Olympics go to a different country of the world each time. The countries all take turns. And now, it's China's turn."

A Renewed Sense of Patriotism

Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist and researcher at Beijing's Renmin University, found in a survey conducted last year that hosting the Olympics ranked behind only economic progress as a source of national pride in China.

A tiny minority of hard-line Communists object to the Games, he explained, on the grounds that the $40 billion being spent would be better devoted to such issues as unemployment. An equally small minority of democracy activists believe China's political repression makes it unfit to be embraced by the world. But overall, Kang estimated, more than 90 percent of China's population is proud to hold the Olympics in Beijing.

"There is pride in China's national accomplishments," he said. "But even more important is the feeling that the rest of the world has recognized China's successes in recent years."

To understand why Chinese are so eager to bask in the current pride, Kang said, it is necessary to recall the China of 20 years ago. At that time, the country was reeling from years of humiliation by foreigners and warfare among Chinese, a failed ideology, and the turmoil of Mao Zedong's crusade, the Cultural Revolution.

"Many people then felt disappointed in the country and had no hope in the future," Kang said. "There was a sharp difference between what people were taught in the Cultural Revolution and the reality they saw when the country started its reforms. Now, after 30 years of development, their confidence has strengthened. As a result, national identity has returned. Chinese people are once again proud of being Chinese."

Shi Chunyuan, an official in the Liaoning province sports bureau in Shenyang, 400 miles northeast of Beijing, said Chinese have also embraced the Games out of satisfaction that their country is no longer an ideological outcast stingy with its visas. Instead, it's a fashionable place to visit for tourists and business executives.

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