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A Victory for China

The 2008 Summer Olympics closed in a display of tightly scripted merriment and lavish fireworks, a final burst of pomp ending 17 days of sports and celebration that Chinese authorities organized with flawless precision and an unbending security clampdown.

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 25, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 24 -- The 2008 Summer Olympics closed Sunday night in a display of tightly scripted merriment and lavish fireworks, a final burst of pomp ending 17 days of sports and celebration that Chinese authorities organized with flawless precision and an unbending security clampdown.

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Over two hours, Chinese organizers dazzled the 90,000 in attendance at the National Stadium. Placido Domingo sang a duet with Song Zuying, a favorite songbird of Communist Party elders; acrobats bounced about on pogo sticks; drums and drummers floated through the air; and a joyful parade of athletes waved flags from around the world.

In its scope and its splendor, the pageant proved yet again that China's Communist Party, while clinging to its Leninist political system, has accumulated the wealth and know-how to pull off a glittering Olympics worthy of a world power. The nation also showed itself able to field a team of impressive athletes, who walked away with 51 gold medals, more than the contingent from any other country.

Shortly before the Olympic flame was extinguished, British rock music ricocheted through the National Stadium, and David Beckham, the British soccer star, kicked a ball into the crowd from atop a double-decker bus. The theatrics symbolized London's ascendancy as host of the 2012 Summer Games, an event that seems destined to focus more clearly on sports and entertainment than the Beijing Games, which from the beginning were interpreted as a test of China's leaders and a chance to showcase the country's progress over the last three decades.

"These were truly exceptional games," Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said in a speech closing the 29th Olympiad.

Indeed, the 2008 Games seemed likely to go down as a political as well as an athletic victory for China, reinforcing the image of party leaders as adroit managers of the world's largest nation on a double-step march toward greater prosperity. In the view of the Chinese, the appearance of dozens of foreign leaders during the Games, including President Bush, meant the world had effectively endorsed the Communist Party's rule, despite its continued political repression.

"The party state was clearly a winner in the eyes of the people," said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University China specialist who was in Beijing for the Games and who wrote a recently published book on the Chinese Communist Party.

The emphasis on China's national achievements was intense, responding to guidance from the Central Propaganda Department as well as spontaneous pride. The U.S. lead in the overall medal count was nearly ignored, for instance, in favor of China's winning tally of gold. In another example of the tone, the headline over a story on the success of Australia's Matthew Mitcham in a diving competition Thursday read: "Mitcham Ruins China's Clean Sweep in Diving."

"We won 51 gold medals," exulted Cheng Xue, a 25-year-old Beijing woman who attended the Closing Ceremonies. "It is a total breakthrough. We did a perfect job on security and provided good services to all the athletes."

Fei Shuyu, 28, an office employee in the capital, also judged the Olympics a great success but said she feared that excessive bragging about the gold medal count could lead foreigners to worry about China's rise as an economic power. "China should not get a swollen head," she said.

The government, however, was quick to congratulate itself for the results, eager to see the Olympic enthusiasm at home and abroad translated into increased support for the cautious mix of economic liberalization and one-party dictatorship that President Hu Jintao and his lieutenants call socialism with Chinese characteristics.

"The hosting of these games has boosted the Chinese people's self-esteem, enhanced national cohesion and reinforced the country's faith in pursuing peaceful development," said a commentary on the official New China News Agency.

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