For China, It's Showtime

The opening ceremonies of the Olympics are finally here, but there are still worries about security and pollution. Video by AP
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 7 -- In the lobby of a provincial Chinese hotel stood a 25-foot-high inflatable character, a beaming Olympic mascot cheerfully inviting one and all to enjoy the 2008 Beijing Games. But in small Mandarin characters stenciled neatly across its polyurethane rump was a discreet reminder: "For Government Use Only," it said.

The 29th Olympiad opening Friday evening in Beijing has from the beginning been a political as well as an athletic event, its impact extending far beyond the fields and stadiums where 16,000 athletes from 200 countries and regions are set to vie for glory. As the giant plastic mascot suggested, the competitor with the most at stake is China's Communist Party, particularly President Hu Jintao and the eight others on the Politburo's elite Standing Committee who rule this vast nation of 1.3 billion people.

For them, the Beijing Games have provided a platform to herald the party's achievements over the past three decades in leading the world's largest country toward ever-increasing prosperity at home and growing acceptance as a reliable partner abroad. It has been a long journey from the Maoist ideology that guided the party for its first three decades in power -- and shattered millions of lives in the process -- and now is the time to bask in recognition.

The celebration of the party's dark-suited and prudent managers starts with a spectacular ceremony at the auspicious time of 8:08 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. (Beijing is 12 hours ahead of Eastern time.) The extravaganza will have an international audience, but it has been aimed primarily at China's own people. Theirs is the endorsement the party and its 70 million members need most to stay in power.

According to Chinese analysts and a wide range of interviews over the past few months, the Beijing Games have worked their magic in this regard, drawing broad enthusiasm from millions of people and effectively crystallizing the message that China can be proud of the distance it has come.

"Through the Olympics, people feel they are experiencing their own success," explained Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist and researcher at People's University who monitors public attitudes in China.

Some complaining has emerged, particularly on the Internet, with Beijingers mainly criticizing the inconvenience of it all. Travel agencies propose a "bi yun tao," an itinerary that will get well-to-do residents out of town for the duration of the Games.

But among most people, the signs of enthusiasm for Beijing's role as Olympic host have become increasingly visible as the time has drawn near. According to government calculations, 1.7 million Chinese, from Beijing and elsewhere, have enrolled as Olympic volunteers for the next three weeks to patrol the streets, guide confused foreign spectators, help visiting athletes and make sure journalists get to their news conferences.

Legions of teenagers, vacationing teachers and retired couples, sporting red armbands and bright baseball caps, took up position last weekend along Beijing's main avenues and in its narrow alleys to offer assistance and report to the police on suspicious characters. Traffic wardens received bright new uniforms and, for the first time in memory, began to signal to drivers turning right against a red light that it would be a good idea not to plow into pedestrians crossing on green.

"I'm happy to be living in this era, with such a big event taking place," said Ye Shaoye, a graying 63-year-old doing a two-hour shift Thursday along a street near the Olympic Village.

Even the People's Armed Police, a starchy paramilitary corps used mainly to enforce the party's idea of social order, has bent with the Olympic rhythm. Young armed guards who previously stuck their palms in people's chests and brusquely demanded passports at Beijing's Qi Jia Yuan diplomatic compound have switched to smiling and saying hello when asking residents for ID.

"Did you get a chance to see the Olympic torch relay in Tiananmen Square today?" one of them asked a resident Wednesday evening, gesturing that there was no need to show identification. "It was really nice."

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