It was, as many had expected, a Chinese Olympics: The gold medal tally; the huge connectivity between Olympic symbols and the symbols of the People’s Republic; and the massive spending by the Chinese authorities to create a historic event that will remain an object of pride for local people for many years to come.
What is more, the sports and the international side of the Olympics eventually got a look-in through the massed ranks of red and yellow flags.
Working out the longer-term significance of the Olympics for China is less easy. It certainly bolstered national pride, already on the rise in recent years due to a long run of prosperity. It also introduced China to the rest of the world in ways that no one had predicted.
The inevitable confrontations that occurred between foreign journalists and Chinese security authorities, the cries of outrage at the blocking of websites in the Olympic media center – these and other similar issues were just a small and not so significant part of a more direct and more thoroughgoing interaction between China and the world than had ever been seen before.
Before this year, most of China had no idea what people outside the country thought about Tibet, the Chinese government, or the way in which China’s Olympic stars are trained. On the other hand, the impression that foreigners had of China was not so accurate either. The Western media overall deserves little more than B-plus for the way it has covered China in recent years.
The efficiency of the games, the quality of the venues, the phenomenal progress that has been made economically and socially was surely for many people around the world a huge surprise, as much of a shock as it was for Chinese people to discover that people overseas did not necessarily hold the same views as those they receive through the official Chinese media.
For China’s leaders, the games were always about projecting the right image, regardless of the collateral impact. The Olympic opening ceremony – which drew praise around the world – was a huge success in this regard. Meanwhile, many of the more negative results of the games, such as the visa problems foreign businessmen have encountered in recent months, did not have much impact on the wider perception of China’s Olympics.
For now, the immediate Olympic legacy will be the billions of dollars in new infrastructure and a heightened sense of national pride. But beyond that, the Olympics undoubtedly generated many new currents of thought in Chinese society, added complexity and depth to simplistic views, and started a new and more direct level of dialogue between the people of China and the people of the world.