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Analysis: Political impact may turn on China’s leader

SHARE Analysis: Political impact may turn on China’s leader

BEIJING — To some who backed Beijing's 2008 Olympic bid, the rationale was South Korea, where the 1988 games proved the power of sport to transform authoritarian governments.

Opponents said a more apt analogy was Berlin in 1936, when Hitler used the Games to glorify Nazism.

John Kamm, a U.S.-based businessman and human rights activist, said both arguments were overblown.

Anyone who makes confident predictions about the impact on Chinese politics of an event seven years down the road "is either a fool or a dreamer," he said.

"Will it be a factor for restraint, or will it be a factor that encourages greater repression?," he said. "I tend to come down on the former."

"Getting the Games, and more importantly making the Games a success, will serve on balance to promote more respect for human rights and a less belligerent attitude on the part of the government," he said.

Many China watchers hope the confidence that flows from Olympic recognition of China's economic and diplomatic might will spill over into politics, bringing openness at home and tempering a belligerent nationalism.

The United States' neutral stance on Beijing's bid appeared to have helped the Bush administration's ties with China recover from a rocky start.

Yet arguments rage on, even on the environmental benefits of what Beijing promises will be a "Green Olympics."

Beijing has promised to spend billions of dollars cleaning up its choking air. Yet a massive construction program will destroy much of what is left of Old Beijing, leaving a gleaming, but more charmless, city.

Others argue that history indicates the Communist Party will always choose its survival over China's international acceptance. And its recent actions are a case in point.

Beijing wooed the Games amid a harsh crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual sect, a "Strike Hard" anti-crime drive that has brought some 1,800 executions in three months and the imposition of tough new curbs on newspapers and Web sites.

"In terms of authorities' interest in and willingness to allow more political space, at the moment the signs are very discouraging," said Sophia Woodman, researcher for the New York-based Human Rights in China.

Li Xiaolong, 40, a jobless woman whose home is earmarked for destruction as part of an Olympic-related urban renewal project, was not among the 96 percent of Beijingers who backed the bid in a recent Gallup poll.

"You know 'Strike Hard'? If they put on the Olympics, they'll strike harder and faster," she said.

U.S. business consultant Laurence Brahm said the Games would bring a facelift to Beijing and "trickle-down" economic benefits to many residents, but also dislocation and corruption.

"People are going to have to be moved from homes that they've lived in for their entire lives or even generations," he said.

"The tremendous spending spree that's going to go on will also give rise to corruption, as all infrastructure projects do," he added.

South Korea's experience offers "a model of how the Olympic spotlight can promote human rights and progress," said a Western diplomat in Beijing.

Just a year before the 1988 Games, South Korea's military rulers faced the biggest pro-democracy protests in their nation's history and questions about Seoul's fitness as Olympic host stung Korean pride as sharply as the tear-gas that burned their eyes.

In the end, army coup-leader-turned-president Chun Doo-hwan gave in to popular demands that his successor be chosen in direct elections, bringing civil peace and restoring a derailed democracy.

China has moved well beyond the totalitarianism of Mao Zedong's days, but the Communist Party made clear on its 80th anniversary on July 1 that political liberalisation is nowhere on its agenda.

Dissident Xu Wenli, who tried to set up China's first opposition party in 1998, will be languishing in prison for three years beyond the Beijing Games if forced to serve his entire sentence.

Kamm, whose Duihua Foundation lobbies to free China's political prisoners, said the Games could be a "brake" on Beijing's use of violence against political demonstrators or military force to back its claims on Taiwan.

He and other analysts say the key to how things might unfold lies in the hands of President Jiang Zemin.

Jiang is slated to relinquish his post as Communist Party chief next year and retire as state president in 2003. But he is expected to continue to call the shots in China as head of the powerful Central Military Commission.

Jiang will be 82 when the Olympic torch comes to Beijing. The Games will form his main legacy, along with steering China into the World Trade Organisation.

"Will he risk that legacy or he will he seek to protect it?" asked Kamm.