Whatever happened to China? Little more than a week after the closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, a topic that was at the forefront of chatter around the copier and at news desks is conspicuously absent. Where has all the controversy over Chinese smoke and mirrors gone?
The Beijing Olympics were to be China's grand coming-out party, a signal that the country of more than 1 billion people was ready to take the next step on the world stage. On many levels, China proved its ability to orchestrate a dazzling show, from ceremonies steeped in Chinese history and aesthetics to innovative, state-of-the-artvenues. Its impressive haul of 51 gold medals topped any other country. There is no doubt that China pulled off a magnificent Olympic Games.
But few - if any - of the pre-Beijing concerns about China were laid to rest, and these questions should not be abandoned simply because the lights of the Water Cube have gone out and the flame has been doused. The international community must take a hard look at the authoritarian state that orchestrated the games without being distracted by a brilliant Olympic showing.
Blights on Beijing should call into question China's integrity. China's abysmal human rights record was a central issue when the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, and IOC President Jacques Rogge has admonished the Chinese for failing to live up to many of the human rights promises it made when awarded the games. The IOC, however, can do little more than admonish China for thumbing its nose at the Olympic ruling body.
On the edges of the glitter and fanfare of the new shiny, international China were stark reminders of the China that engendered so much protest and suspicion prior to the Olympics. U.S. Olympian Joey Cheek had his visa revoked after planning to call attention to Chinese ties to the Darfur region of the Sudan. Two elderly Chinese women were sentenced to labor camps for airing their grievances with Chinese officials who took their homes for Olympic redevelopment schemes without compensation. In a disturbing accusation of blatant rule-breaking, the true ages of China's gold-medal gymnasts are seriously in doubt. The state-designated protest sites were disturbingly empty. International reporters were roughed up when pursuing stories away from Olympic venues and at times found their Internet access censored.
If these things could happen in the midst of the Olympic Games - when the eye of the world was fixed on Beijing - and receive little more than an admonition from the IOC and an "I told you so" from the usual human rights organizations, then who can say what sorts of abuses might continue now that the press tents have folded and the world has lost interest?
China won the Olympic bid in spite of its appalling human rights record and masterfully turned the international eye to the old marvel of the Great Wall and the new landmark of the Bird's Nest during its month in the spotlight. The landscape may have changed, but the state has not, and the international community needs to take a serious look behind the curtain before they ordain China's arrival as an equal world power. With the Olympic flame darkened, it should be a lot easier not to be blinded by the "new" China.