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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today, the state-run media in China says the country is on a honeymoon. One day after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, China is left more self-confident and more open. That's the official view, anyway. There are others. NPR's Louisa Lim reports on the lasting impression made by the games.

(Soundbite of applause)

LOUISA LIM: From the moment when 2,008 drummers beat their countdown to the roar of the crowd, it was clear Beijing's Olympics would be a spectacle, and so they have proved. A staggering number of records fell at the stadiums that are state-of-the-art monuments to China's modernity.

Historian Jonathan Spence of Yale University says it's a pivotal moment for China.

Mr. JONATHAN SPENCE (Historian, Yale University): This is incredibly dramatic, I think, for a sort of global perception of China, also China's self-perception that it can handle something on this scale. It's a kind of financial coming-of-age.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Chinese leaders received 80 world leaders for the opening ceremony, including President Bush. Such a concentration of political influence paying court to Beijing spoke volumes about China's new soft power, and David Shambaugh from George Washington University says it might allow Beijing to move on from what it saw as the century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers.

Mr. DAVID SHAMBAUGH (Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University): That aggrieved nationalism was the dominant narrative for half a century, so the Chinese Communist Party staked its own legitimacy on overcoming all this humiliation. Now, China has stood up in the world. It's clear for everybody to see.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

LIM: Chinese fans supported their athletes enthusiastically, but largely without lapsing into nationalistic fervor. Their sportsmen and women scooped up 51 gold medals, more than any other country. But sports commentator Huang Jianxiang says the Olympics means more than just medals.

Mr. HUANG JIANXIANG (Sports Commentator): This is not only for our sportsmen and women to prove something. It's for the nation to prove something. This is a prosperous nation. People are doing well. And I think that's more important than simply winning medals from the games.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Child #1: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: That obsession with appearances led to incidents of deception in the opening ceremony. In this case, a child actor lip-synced. The real singer was judged too unsightly to represent the country. But viewers also saw Beijing's rebirth as a super-modern city amid breathtaking architectural feats, like the National Stadium, also called the Bird's Nest.

The cost of this Olympics is estimated at $43 billion. That's reaping rewards. Two-thirds of those asked in one British poll believed the games would improve Western perceptions of China.

Ms. ZHANG LIJIA (Author, "Socialism is Great"): I spoke to one Western guy. He said before, for him, his image of China was 1989, the crackdown, and now it's probably the Bird's Nest.

LIM: Zhang Lijia, the author of a memoir about growing up in China called "Socialism is Great." She's proud but critical too.

Ms. LIJIA: I think the government could have taken this as a good opportunity to address the real issues: to crack down on corruption, to improve the rule of law, to opening up the media, to provide more channels for people to express their grievances. But instead, the government just tries to hide the problem and takes excessive measures.

LIM: One example, this part was supposed to be a protest zone, along with two others, but not one legal protest was made, despite 77 applications to the authorities. So these games have underlined Beijing's paranoia, its fear of dissent.

(Soundbite of soccer match)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: In fact, on one playing field there was a little-noticed political protest, rooted in sport. It was during this Olympic soccer match. Chinese soccer fans, disgusted with their own team's poor performance, shouted in unison for the sacking of the government official in charge of Chinese football. In any other arena, such a demand would be seen as a challenge to government control.

The author of "Olympic Dreams: China and Sport, 1895 to 2008," Xu Guoqi, wonders if sport could actually drive political reform in China.

Mr. XU GUOQI (Author): The government has to do something to improve the Chinese soccer skill. To do that, they have to take care of the widespread corruption, to hold the officials responsible for the failure, to follow the rule of law. So I think, basically, that sports could trigger revolution, not the radical revolution but piece by piece.

(Soundbite of soccer match)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: But for now, the Olympics have led to tightened controls. And with another lavish ceremony, Beijing closed the book on an event which had been the focus of public life for a decade. China's Olympics were a sign of its ambition writ large, its determination to succeed no matter the cost. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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