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Will The Olympics Change China?

For 21 days in August, thousands of athletes, journalists and visitors from around the world will descend upon Beijing for the Summer Olympics Games. Unlike other recent Olympics, the lead-up to the games in China has been rife with political expectations and concerns. Many who supported China's bid to host the Olympics predicted that by meeting the International Olympic Committee's expectations Beijing would permit some political reforms. But critics say that instead of becoming more open, China closing ranks against dissent and criticism under the banner of nationalism. VOA's Brian Padden reports.

A recent poll from the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 93 percent of Chinese think the Olympics will improve their country's international image. But Bruce Stokes, a columnist with the National Journal who worked on the survey, says national pride is so high in China that any disruption to the games could easily generate resentment against the West.

"If there is any problem with the Olympics be it be it pollution, be it demonstrations, be it even a just failure of the Chinese teams to perform, and this is covered extensively in the West, this will give the Chinese public yet another reason to think that the West is out to get them," Stokes said.

International supporters of China's selection to host the Olympics games have high expectations for the Olympics.

Victor Cha is director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and formerly a member of President Bush's National Security Council. He says using the Olympics to quietly engage the Chinese has been an effective way to press China to change.

He cites as positive, developments the re-starting of a bilateral human rights dialogue with the United States, the agreement to dialogue with the leadership of Taiwan and China's less obstructionist role at the United Nations when it comes to resolutions on Darfur.

"Many journalists have sort of looked at these changes and talked about a quiet revolution in Chinese foreign policy," Cha said. "And many of them do readily admit that the Olympics in many ways created change in China foreign policy that years of diplomacy could not."

Cha says the pressure on China to further reform will continue after the Olympics. But Sophie Richardson with Human Rights Watch disagrees. She says in some ways the Olympics has prompted the Chinese government to regress, cracking down on protests in places like Tibet and on internal dissent.

"We are aware of people who are now serving sentences on charges of inciting state subversion for simply having said publicly that they would rather the government improved human rights than spend so much time and energy on hosting the Olympics," Richardson said.

China is already retreating from its promise to provide international journalists with full internet access by blocking politically sensitive sites that discuss Tibetan succession or human rights in China. After the media spotlight of the Olympics fades, Richardson and others fear, things will only get worse.