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Big number, big power

John Sunderland on how China's hosting of the Olympics marks the trade-off between freedom and prosperity for its people

For the Chinese, the date and time of the opening of the Beijing Olympics could not be more auspicious. The opening will take place at eight minutes past eight on the eighth day of the eighth month, 2008. This is no accident. For centuries the number 8 is considered to be the most fortuitous of numbers (in Chinese "ba" is the same as the word for prosperity). Thus the opening of the Beijing Olympics has a highly symbolic meaning and resonance in Chinese culture which reflects its growing status as a world power and economic powerhouse. The games have been described as a 'coming-out party' but to many it is also seen as a 'coming back' to an era of prosperity, territorial integrity and global power which China has not enjoyed for over a millennium.

2008 will complete three decades of 'Reform and Opening Up' which was first introduced by Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao Zedong. The policy has been a runaway success: China now contributes more to global growth than the US and is buying shares in big international companies as well as investing massively in countries across the globe. The optimists see the possibility of the gradual development of a more pluralist society and a stable legal system together with an almost limitless supply of cheap goods and labour, to drive the global economy. There are plenty of them: businessmen who dream of fortunes to be made in what is potentially the world's biggest marketplace. The model is Hong Kong, which has been assimilated as a successful dynamic capitalist economy without any major upheaval, and which has tutored mainland China in its transition to a capitalist economy. It has also held out the possibility of creating a society which can tolerate limited pluralism and freedom of expression (within a framework of central control and self-censorship) which does not threaten the pre-eminence of the Chinese Communist Party. This optimism is shared by many ordinary people who remain optimistic about the future, and who are prepared to tolerate limited political freedoms in the name of economic prosperity.

The Chinese Communist Party, not surprisingly, buys into this vision of continued growth, growing economic prosperity, and China taking its rightful place in the world. For them, the Beijing Olympics represent an opportunity to showcase this vision of China, both to the international community and to a patriotic population. It is a massive public relations opportunity which the Chinese are determined to exploit to the maximum. The budget for the Olympics is expected to reach $40 billion - twice the amount that the London intends to spend in 2012.

On the other hand the events of 2008 could not have been less auspicious. After the terrible winter snow storms, the rioting in Tibet and the protests which have dogged the Olympic torch relay have turned this opportunity into a potential PR disaster. Shortly after, China was hit by the earthquake in Sichuan - a disaster which has mobilised public consciousness in an unprecedented way. With up to 5 million homeless, this was said to be the worst natural disaster to hit China since 1949. After the grief, the anger at the consequences of corrupt building practices is now coming to the fore. Although China's relief effort has been positively compared to the incompetence of the US when faced with Hurricane Katrina, the government will still need to answer questions about corruption and the construction of the 'tofu buildings' as a result of local officials and developers creaming off profits.

China's last major earthquake, in this city of Tangshan, occurred just before the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Premier Zhou Enlai and the former Red Army hero General Zhu De died the same year, leading to the Chinese referring to 'the curse of 1976'. According to tradition, natural disasters foretold the fall of the dynasty and a descent into 'chaos'. In a culture which values order above all else, this is a prospect which is deeply undermining to the confident vision of the future which China is at great pains to portray.

So any attempt to politicise the Olympics, and use it as a platform for criticism of China is seen as an attempt to destabilise the regime. The protests on Tibet have been seen as an unfair meddling in China's internal affairs. Tibet's status as part of China is beyond question in the eyes of the Chinese - a view which is held widely, amongst ordinary people as well as politicians. For them, having been brought up on a diet of nationalist propaganda, Tibetans are a backward people living in a feudal society, who should be grateful for China's effort to rescue them from misery and superstition. The investment in Tibet has created growth at a rate that is even higher than China itself, and a new high altitude railway will give a further boost. The trouble is that this is accompanied by a high rate of settlement by Han Chinese and what is felt to be the destruction of Tibetan culture. The debate is polarised, and depicted as a national struggle against an occupying power. However, the history is more complex and each side is able, with some justification, to lay claim to historical precedent.

The Chinese sensitivity to foreign interference should not be underestimated, and the double standards of Western nations are all too apparent to China. In respect of Tibet, there is some excuse for paranoia - it was British forces who occupied Lhasa in 1903, killing many in the process. The European colonialist occupation and carving up of China in the 19th century - the 'century of shame and humiliation' - is remembered as a fundamental collective experience and the evidence of the destruction and looting by the British is still evident in the imperial palaces and gardens of Beijing. The brutal Japanese occupation during the 20th century was a national trauma which has yet to heal. The modern Chinese communist state came into being in the struggle against foreign colonial powers, and is built on a promise to unify the nation, restore its dignity, and never again permit foreigners to subjugate or split China. This is why the issues of Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang strike such a raw nerve. China has a low threshold for foreign criticism, and zero tolerance for 'losing face'.

Fuelled by a xenophobia which is partly rooted in past indignities and partly cultivated as the new patriotic ideology, large numbers of (particularly young) Chinese have responded to protest against China's rule in Tibet with vitriolic hyper-nationalism, issuing ugly threats and engaging in violent counter demonstrations. In a movement reminiscent of the Red Guards of the 1960's, there has been an outpouring of anger and hatred on Chinese internet sites, where the strongest invective is used to demonstrate the most patriotism. In San Francisco, one young woman who attempted to create a dialogue between the two factions of Chinese students was branded a traitor and her personal details and the address of her parents were posted on the internet. A mountain of insults accumulated on the most popular Chinese websites over the next few days. A web-commentator said she should be burned in oil and another patriot wrote: 'if you return to China, your dead corpse will be chopped into 10,000 pieces'. The Beijing government encouraged nationalists to demonstrate all over the world, while at home its critics were beaten up and arrested.

This brand of nationalism has been particularly cultivated over the last few years as communist ideology has lost its grip and nationalism is the logical replacement. In addition, it is also fuelled by the feelings of discontent and resentments within large parts of Chinese society. Economic success has also brought dislocation - wage arrears, job losses, inflation, corruption, environmental degradation, increasing inequalities, and a moral vacuum where the pursuit of profit at all costs sits uneasily with communist teachings. Migration is a huge problem with some 150 million migrant workers suffering widespread exploitation and insecurity. Although strikes are still not legal, and as such are seen as political rather than economic confrontations, walkouts are on the increase. Thus the forces of chaos are building up, to counter the forces of order and the 'mandate of heaven' threatens to be withdrawn from the current rulers. The use of repression to keep control is a knee-jerk reaction which is built into the system and the Chinese leadership are experienced in its deployment. The need to maintain order and control will be paramount during the games, justifying the most intense level of security to deter "terrorists". While the world's media have every reason to go along with this rationale, it has the potential to unravel at any point. It remains to be seen whether this fragile situation will herald a turning point in China's political development and whether the immovable object which is the Communist Party's grip on China's political and economic life starts to come unstuck. 2008 could yet prove to be a momentous year for China.