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Date: Monday, 11-August-2008
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Economist (UK)
August 8, 2008

BEIJING -- THE 29th Olympic games have started in Beijing with adisplay by thousands of soldiers and other performers in the city'siconic "bird's nest" stadium. The authorities will be pleased. Dozensof foreign leaders attended the ceremony, including America'spresident, George Bush,and Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin.Despite worries of rain, none fell. The next 16 days will be tense.

The government fears that its critics at home and abroad will mar thegames with protests. It also worries about terrorist attacks, perhapsby Muslim separatists in the far-western region of Xinjiang. Justfour days before the start of the games, two alleged terroristsattacked a group of police in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, killing16. In Beijing during the build-up to the event there were alsoseveral small protests by foreign activists concerned about human andanimal rights. Two Americans and two Britons were expelled from thecountry after unfurling banners near the stadium and calling for a"free Tibet".

To deter such incidents, the authorities have imposed massivesecurity. Beijing is ringed with checkpoints. Police have beenvisiting homes to conduct identity checks. Plainclothes officers havebeen deployed on buses. Bags are being searched on the underground.Citizens have been asked to report to the secret police if they seeforeigners engaged in suspicious activity. Workers from other partsof the country without proper residence permits have been ordered toleave the city. Tighter visa restrictions have been imposed forforeign visitors.

Many parts of Beijing have an unusually deserted air. Bars which wereonce popular haunts for foreigners have been ordered to stick tolong-neglected rules that they close by 2am. Their tables have beenremoved from pavements to keep revellers indoors. Those withouttickets have been advised to watch the events at home on television.At one Beijing park police turned away people who had been hoping towatch the opening ceremony in front of huge open-air screens (theycited technical problems). Many hotels are reporting far loweroccupancy-rates than they had expected.

Pollution is another big concern. Hundreds of factories have beenclosed in and around Beijing. Many government cars have been orderedoff the roads. Car-owners are supposed only to drive every other day.Yet these measures have had little obvious impact. Haze shroudedBeijing on the day of the opening ceremony. Officials try to suggestthat it is merely a product of hot and humid conditions. Butmeasurements made by the BBC suggest a strong correlation between thecity's poor visibility in recent days and high levels ofairborne-particulate matter that can cause respiratory problems.

Despite grumbling among the many thousands of Beijing residentsforced to move home to make way for Olympic construction, and somedissidents who have been put under tighter surveillance, theauthorities are hoping that the games will create a feel-good factorat home. They need it after a series of crises, from crippling snowstorms in January to upheaval in Tibet in March, Sichuan's deadlyearthquake in May and riots in various towns since then. Manycitizens worry about inflation, a stockmarket slump and signs thatthe property boom of the past few years is losing momentum.

The opening ceremony appeared designed to touch nationalistheartstrings, with thousands of performers (many of them costumedsoldiers) banging drums and acting out scenes showing off thecountry's cultural heritage and scientific prowess. These includedsynchronised martial arts and men in spacesuits lowered into thestadium. Goose-stepping soldiers in uniform raised the national flag(Korean nationalists would have been less moved?the teams of Northand South Korea failed to agree on a joint parade of their athleteswhen the national teams walked around the stadium).

Many Chinese hope that these games will see their country surpassAmerica as the winner of most medals. If this happens, which manybelieve is possible, a triumphant mood will sweep the country.

Outside China feelings will be mixed. There will be thanks forChina's hospitality and admiration for its Olympic infrastructure.But there will also be complaints about Beijing's lack of partyspirit and its treatment of protesters. The angry nationalists whowere in uproar in China after the violence in Tibet in March willagain wonder whether China is being picked upon by Westernersresentful of its rise. An event intended to foster internationalgoodwill could result in more misgiving.

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