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Pretense Games

August 24, 2008

As the Olympic Games in Beijing come to a close on Sunday, Aug. 24, DW's Matthias von Hein says that all those involved have been doing a lot of pretending during the last two weeks.

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It was a perfect showing of achievements. It was what the Olympic Comittee had ordered. China presented its strengths in Beijing: The ability of an authoritarian government to mobilize people and resources for centrally decided projects. The ability -- if need be -- to curtail car traffic for weeks on end and shut down factories in order to get air quality to a somewhat acceptable level. Unfortunately, Beijing also showed off its abilities to prevent protests, shield off dissidents and hinder journalists to do their work.

The 29th Olympic Summer Games in Beijing will possibly go down in history as the "Pretense Games." The International Olympic Committee pretended that it would be possible to combine the awarding of the Games with private lessons in democratization. The Chinese government pretended that it would allow more freedom rights in connection with the Games. China pretended to be a modern, cosmopolitan country that it wants to be seen as. The Olympic organizers pretended to allow demonstrations -- even if not a single one was approved and applicants ended up in prison.

During the opening ceremony, a beautiful girl pretended to sing -- while the voice of another girl had been recorded. Small Chinese pretended to be children representing the country's 55 ethnic minorities -- but they'd only been dressed in colorful costumes.

The athletes pretended to break world records without any outside help. German equestrians even doped their horses! IOC, organizers, sponsors and media organizations all pretended that the Games were a "festival of global youth" when commerce has long been reigning supreme. The world pretended that an Olympic Peace existed. But Georgia began invading its breakaway province South Ossetia just in time for the opening ceremony.

But the Games are still a success for the Chinese government. Maybe they haven't been the international public relations success Beijing had hoped for, but they certainly have been just that domestically. The gold medal shower, the opening ceremony attended by more world leaders than ever before, the perfect rundown of the competitions from an organizational point of view -- all of this was broadcast to every Chinese living room. That strengthens national self-confidence. It's precious political capital to legitimize the domination of a party that's ruined in terms of ideology.

The IOC's the loser. It naively believed that the democratization boost of the Games in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988 could be realized in Beijing as well. But South Korea is a small country that's dependent on the US in terms of security policy. China's a gigantic country that functions according to its own rules.

There is a slight slimmer of hope, though and it's based on a couple of different things. International pressure, for example, led to a loosening of Internet censorship for the duration of the Games. It wasn't unlocked completely. But it was opened up as far as it had never happened before. This liberalization could also expand to other parts of society in coming years. Major changes take a long time to become visible in China. The future will show whether -- and how -- the Games have changed China.

Matthias von Hein heads DW-RADIO's Chinese service (win)