BEIJING — Hours after the street celebrations of Beijing's winning bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics subsided, Chinese authorities Saturday led an American business professor into a closed courtroom, convicted him of espionage after a perfunctory trial and ordered him expelled.
It appeared to be the end of a five-month ordeal for Li Shaomin, 44, a Princeton-trained academic and proponent of democratic reforms in China who was secretly detained Feb. 25 by Chinese police and accused of spying for Taiwan. It was also an immediate reminder of the political gamble that the International Olympic Committee made when it awarded the Summer Games to Beijing: Will the Olympic spotlight lead China to moderate its repressive behavior or to tighten controls in the name of social stability?
The state-run New China News Agency, which announced Li's sentence, did not say when he would be deported. Nor was there any word on whether other U.S. citizens and permanent residents detained in recent months, including American University researcher Gao Zhan, would be tried or released soon.
In Washington, Jennifer Millerwise, a White House spokeswoman, said President Bush welcomed the decision to release Li, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong who immigrated from China to the United States. The administration had expressed concern about his detention.
The IOC and other backers of Beijing's bid are betting that the international attention that accompanies the Olympics will put pressure on China to improve its human-rights record and resist military action against Taiwan. But others worry that China's leaders will conclude they can afford to ignore international opinion. The government launched a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent over the past few months, which included the arrest of Li and at least four other scholars with U.S. ties, and it was still awarded the Games.
One senior Beijing journalist, who asked not to be identified, said the Communist Party may act even more ruthlessly to ensure stability and its grip on power as 2008 approaches, in part because critics will be tempted to take advantage of the Olympics to openly challenge the government.
"The pressures are only going to increase in the next few years, especially after China joins the World Trade Organization," he said. The market-opening measures that will be phased in after China's expected accession to the trade group in November could result in rising unemployment as the country's inefficient farms and factories face world competition.
One aspect of China's Olympic victory that is difficult to assess is whether it will intensify nationalist sentiments and how that will affect the political system. After the announcement Friday night, more than 400,000 people poured into central Beijing to celebrate. The image recalled the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, but this time many people were cheering for the government. "I think nationalism is an inevitable element in the Chinese political mix. With the Olympics, there's at least a good chance of giving that nationalism a more benign cast, one that identifies national pride in being Chinese and a sense of comfort in dealing with the rest of the world," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China scholar at the University of Michigan and a former Clinton administration adviser. "It's much better in this framework than for it to develop where the Chinese have been denied the Olympics and sit there with a chip on their shoulder, saying these guys are always going to hate us."
Guo Pan, a management student who was celebrating early Saturday at Beijing University, said the Olympics will boost China's self-confidence and, "in time, we will have confidence to approach democracy and make improvements in the political system and in the economic realm."
But rising nationalist sentiment also may cause Chinese leaders to adopt a tougher line against Western criticism of the country's political system. The Olympics could "help enhance the Chinese public's confidence in their country and build up nationalism. The people in the meantime may be willing to put their demands for democracy on hold," said Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the government agency that sets policy toward Beijing.