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Across a nation, Olympic fervor

For more than a billion Chinese, the Games are a milestone in their country's often dolorous history.
Image: A lantern in the shape of the Bird's Nest, the nickname for China's Olympic Stadium
A young boy looks at a lantern in the shape of the Bird's Nest, the nickname for China's Olympic Stadium, at a Lantern Festival display in Beijing on Feb. 21.Greg Baker / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Chen Guangbing's horizon is largely confined to Zhong Jie, a crowded pedestrian street cutting through central Shenyang where he hawks peanuts, pistachios and cashews from a rickety wooden table.

But Chen, 28, feels something big and life-expanding is about to happen here, broadening the world of his little nut stand, running the length of Zhong Jie, embracing Shenyang and illuminating the whole of China. The Olympics are coming to Beijing in August, he knows, and for Chen and more than a billion other Chinese, the Games are a milestone in this country's often dolorous history.

Up and down China's political, social and economic hierarchy, from new millionaires to dirt farmers, party cadres to protesters, the country has embraced its role as Olympics host with an ardor and unanimity rarely matched in previous Games.

The enthusiasm does not stem from the love of sports, though. Rather, the Olympics are being interpreted here as a testament to how far the country has come over three decades of economic reforms and modernization.

Beijing's selection as the 2008 Olympic venue is widely seen here as a blessing by other countries of the Communist Party's achievements during that time and a show of faith in its promises to push forward with more changes, including political liberalization. Perhaps most of all, the Beijing Games provide Chinese with validation of the national pride that is swelling here after a long stretch during which most Chinese felt left behind and cut off from their rightful place in the world.

"You're darn right it is a good thing, and I'll tell you why," Chen said from behind his display of nuts on Zhong Jie, his breath coming out in little puffs on a frigid afternoon in northeastern China. "The Olympics go to a different country of the world each time. The countries all take turns. And now, it's China's turn."

A renewed sense of patriotism
Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist and researcher at Beijing's Renmin University, found in a survey conducted last year that hosting the Olympics ranked behind only economic progress as a source of national pride in China.

A tiny minority of hard-line Communists object to the Games, he explained, on the grounds that the $40 billion being spent would be better devoted to such issues as unemployment. An equally small minority of democracy activists believe China's political repression makes it unfit to be embraced by the world. But overall, Kang estimated, more than 90 percent of China's population is proud to hold the Olympics in Beijing.

"There is pride in China's national accomplishments," he said. "But even more important is the feeling that the rest of the world has recognized China's successes in recent years."

To understand why Chinese are so eager to bask in the current pride, Kang said, it is necessary to recall the China of 20 years ago. At that time, the country was reeling from years of humiliation by foreigners and warfare among Chinese, a failed ideology, and the turmoil of Mao Zedong's crusade, the Cultural Revolution.

"Many people then felt disappointed in the country and had no hope in the future," Kang said. "There was a sharp difference between what people were taught in the Cultural Revolution and the reality they saw when the country started its reforms. Now, after 30 years of development, their confidence has strengthened. As a result, national identity has returned. Chinese people are once again proud of being Chinese."

Shi Chunyuan, an official in the Liaoning province sports bureau in Shenyang, 400 miles northeast of Beijing, said Chinese have also embraced the Games out of satisfaction that their country is no longer an ideological outcast stingy with its visas. Instead, it's a fashionable place to visit for tourists and business executives.

"With its economic and social development, China has become more or less like any other country," Shi said.

Rallying around the party
The Communist Party under President Hu Jintao has seized on the Games as a tool to stoke enthusiasm for its rule, to rouse the 68 million party faithful and induce the others to overlook its failings. Conveniently enough, the Beijing Olympics coincide with the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's decision to open the economy to private enterprise and engage with the world, giving the party a second framework for celebrating its achievements. It has not hesitated.

"These days, the whole party and the whole country, including all ethnic groups, are rallying around Comrade Secretary General Hu Jintao heart and soul," Li Changchun, the Politburo Standing Committee member who runs party propaganda, told an audience Feb. 21.

To make sure the two-week Olympic festival makes China shine -- and its government look good -- the party recently called on a powerful Politburo Standing Committee member, Xi Jinping, to manage the preparations. Naming such a senior figure as Xi, who is considered the most likely successor to Hu, was seen as a demonstration of resolve to make sure nothing goes wrong during China's moment in the sun, which is expected to attract an estimated 500,000 tourists and 4 billion television viewers around the world.

Already, though, critics of China are making themselves heard. Director Steven Spielberg, for example, announced this month that he would withdraw as an artistic adviser for the opening ceremony. The move, he said, came in protest of China's failure to press Sudan to end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

Chinese officials have strongly condemned efforts by foreign human rights groups to use the Games to forward their own political agendas by embarrassing China. Now, caught up in the enthusiasm, many ordinary Chinese have joined in.

"A certain Western movie director is very naive," the commentator Ding Gang wrote in the party's official People's Daily after Spielberg's declaration. "He exhibited unreasonable behavior on the Beijing Olympics issue. Probably, this is a special characteristic of Hollywood people. But the naivete showed by some Western media on this issue looks laughable."

Managing China's image through the Olympics celebration is a major concern of party censors as well. Prosecutors in the Feb. 19 trial of political activist Yang Chunlin told judges one reason he deserves to be jailed is that an appeal he sent out on the Internet, which said "We want human rights, not Olympics," attracted the attention of foreign correspondents in Beijing.

Part of the zeal is due to the party's own mobilization campaign, a skill that cadres long ago mastered. In schools and advertising jingles, and on television programs and outdoor signs, the government has spread the word relentlessly that the Olympics are good for China.

Even the traditional Lantern Festival this month was a platform. Officials in Wuhan hung up 200 questions about Olympics history alongside the lanterns in a city park. In the city of Zibo, a local craftsman constructed a one-ton lantern with the five-ring Olympics logo. In the city of Changsha, a 280-yard-long dragon slithered around the city with the Olympic symbol emblazed on its flanks.

Cashing in on the Games
Shenyang, a relatively prosperous city of 5 million inhabitants, has set up Olympics-related programs for its schoolchildren, beginning with first graders. Liu Fengming, the sports department official overseeing school programs, said the Olympics campaign has reached even into farming villages, where students are encouraged to stage competitions and every village has been required to build an athletic field.

A balding, retired coach predicted that China's athletes will do poorly in the Olympic competition despite the high hopes of many Chinese for a long list of gold medals. But he added that the Olympics are still a great achievement for China because the gathering will foster friendship between Chinese and people from around the world.

"Yes, it's a good time to sit down together, maybe have a drink and chat," he said, happy to chat about the Olympics but uneasy about giving his name for publication.

Shenyang is proud of its national reputation as a cradle of good athletes. But the smell of money has attracted local businesses as well. As many as 300,000 extra visitors are expected for Olympic soccer games that will be staged here, according to the Shenyang Travel Administration. The Sheraton Chengdu Lido Hotel has printed Olympic rings on its placemats, and sports shops display large posters of winning athletes.

A taxi driver taking one recent visitor in from the airport was already trying to cash in. After an animated conversation about the Olympics spirit and the good fellowship expected at next summer's soccer matches, he concealed the meter and tried to get three times the normal fare.

Han Weimin, chief of the sports department's economic department, said Shenyang has remodeled its stadium, built a swimming pool and constructed or expanded several fields in anticipation of the soccer matches. The budget money would not have been available without the Games, he added.

"China's economic situation is still pretty backward," said Cheng Lirong, a 30-year-old saleswoman at a dress shop. "Maybe the Olympics can accelerate our development a little."

Cheng, who got married last year, works in Chenyang's upscale Seibu mall, where merchants are relentlessly plugged into the Olympic idea that contacts with the West are good for China. A country classic by Waylon Jennings was playing in the store one recent morning, while Ferragamo vied with Vuitton for the attention of a sprinkling of shoppers.

But even at the more traditional Zhong Jie shops downtown, the image Chinese want for their country in this Olympic year was clear.

A poster of Michael Schumacher, the retired Formula One champion, hung opposite a poster of actor George Clooney in a shop trying to sell oversize Swiss watches at the Saiyang Department Store. Across the street stood Fashion World, where Calvin Klein Jeans advertisements filled the display windows.

Above it all was a giant outdoor sign pushing Adidas running shoes. It bore a large photograph of China's hurdles champion, Liu Xiang, with Olympic rings and the inscription in Chinese, "Nothing is impossible," followed by a translation into English, "Impossible is nothing."