THE first question Chinese people ask Westerners visiting their country for the Olympics is always the same: "What do you think of Beijing?" All they want is a smile and a nod, any sign of approval. Anxiously, they look for it in your face and they are relieved when it comes. They want acceptance.
This anxiety, this eagerness to please, manifested itself in the authorities' view that nothing in these Games could be left to chance. From the opening ceremony it was clear: these Olympics had been perfectly choreographed. Like the artistic gymnastics, dominated by the Chinese, the Games in their entirety would prove to be an example of precision timing, exact delivery and the nailing of a perfect dismount. China was staging the Games in more ways than one.
However, this weekend, with the Games coming to a close, local people are almost visibly starting to relax. Their relief that the Games seem to have been a success is palpable. Pride and honour are big in Beijing. Two weeks ago, when photos were taken, men stood erect, hands clamped firmly to their sides like soldiers. This weekend the stiffness has eased. Westerners are sought out as props in the family photos, and as they pose there are smiles and signs of peace. The Chinese people were desperate to make that peace with the rest of the world, and they are starting to believe they have been successful.
So have the Beijing Olympics been a public relations triumph for China's leaders? Has the carefully choreographed spectacle dispelled the notion of China as an authoritarian and vaguely threatening superpower with a poor record on human rights? And with the Games coming to a close, what now for China's place in the world?
For the Chinese, the public relations push has only just begun. The communist government is moving swiftly to capitalise on the success of its athletes by sending most of China's gold medallists to Hong Kong next week, ahead of elections there on September 7 that are a crucial test for advocates of democracy. A resurgent Chinese national pride has buoyed pro-Beijing candidates this summer and they hope they can take control of the Hong Kong legislature, putting them in a position to reshape election laws that would further cement Beijing's control.
According to John Fox, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the important public relations battle the Chinese government had to win was not with the wider world but with the Chinese people themselves.
"The international stuff is important for China's longer-term goals and its strategic positioning in the world," he says, "but the Olympics are most important for showing the people of China how great and powerful their leaders are; that they can deliver an Olympics which is a success; and therefore the position of the Communist Party within China is strengthened and legitimised.
"In general, Chinese people are very proud of the Olympics, even the ones who are dissatisfied with their lives. What happens is people are angry with their local party officials for screwing them over with land deals or whatever – but they have complete faith in the higher officials in Beijing.
"The Olympics is almost the pinnacle of that, and president Hu Jintao's party are demonstrating their power at the highest level. So people are proud, nationalistic and patriotic."
As for the image China presented to the world, the glitz of the Games provided an impressive spectacle but it persuaded few people to review their sceptical opinions about the authoritarian nature of the regime and the low priority it gives to the human rights taken for granted in the West.
Richard Baum, a professor at the UCLA Centre for Chinese Studies, puts it bluntly. "A lot of what you see is a mask, but it's a very effective and persuasive mask. What you don't see is every factory within 50km of Beijing has been shut down for the last month. You don't see that the Chinese military has been busy seeding the clouds so that the rains will wash away the air pollution. What you don't see is that a million migrant workers have been moved out of town because they're an embarrassment to the government. The authoritarian state in China doesn't seem to trust its own people."
Innovations that seemed to signify a more liberal attitude to dissent – such as the creation of three 'protest zones' around the city – simply turned out to be a PR disaster for the regime, because its officials could not bring themselves to allow the zones to be used.
The example made of two elderly Chinese women is telling. They were sentenced to a year of "re-education through labour" after they repeatedly sought a permit to demonstrate in one of the zones. The women, Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, had made five visits to the police this month in an effort to obtain permission to protest about what they said was inadequate compensation for the demolition of their homes in Beijing. During their final visit on Monday, public security officials informed them that they had been given administrative sentences for "disturbing the public order".
Telling too is the example of Gao Chuancai, who slipped into the capital last week hoping to stage a one-man rally against corruption in his village in north-east China. He knew his chances of success were slim. Gao, a 45-year-old farmer from Heilongjiang province, had been jailed a dozen times. Two beatings by the police left him with broken bones and shattered teeth. He mailed his application for a protest, and came to Beijing to follow it up a week later. During his visit to the Public Security Bureau, the police interviewed him for an hour and then told him to return in five days for his answer. A few hours later he was picked up by the authorities and escorted back to Heilongjiang province. A man who picked up the phone at the Wanggang police station, near Xingyi, acknowledged that Gao Chuancai was being detained at a local hotel. "He's under our control now," said the officer.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said he and other rights advocates had been sceptical that China would fulfil its pledge to allow greater free speech during the Olympic Games. Still, he said, the International Olympic Committee should have been held accountable for not pressing China on the issue: "The IOC seems oblivious to the fact that they're holding the games in a repressive environment."
Giselle Davies, spokeswoman for the IOC, said she had hoped Beijing would follow the path of other host cities and allow demonstrations to take place in designated areas but that the issue was one for local officials to decide.
Even critics such as Richard Baum at UCLA recognise, however, that the Games will have had a liberalising effect on China. "I think in the long run people will look back at the Olympics as a major milestone in China's opening outward, both in terms of its involvement in the global economy and also its acceptance of international morals and standards. So I think the impact will be a positive one generally."
Politicians who have always urged a softly-softly engagement with China are appealing for the verdict on the regime to be a kind one. Ben Chapman MP, chairman of Westminster's All-Party Parliamentary China Group, says we in the West must take care not to apply our own standards to a country with a very different culture.
"This is not to indulge in moral relativism," he insists, "but to demonstrate that we need to show sensitivity towards historical context and less of the presumptions associated with a Euro-centric mindset. Indulging in facile 'China-bashing' has become fashionable of late. But I would argue that the success of the Beijing Olympics offers us plenty of reasons why we should celebrate China's re-emergence onto the international stage."
Back in the Olympic compound in Beijing, away from all the rhetoric of international diplomacy, it is the human face of China that is making its mark. Early in the Games there was a feeling that the face the nation's leaders had presented to the world lacked sincerity. In a Games which had almost everything, the nagging omission – as far as those cocooned within and chaperoned between the official areas were concerned – had been its soul. We knew it was there, of course; it was just kept beyond the huge fences of the Olympic compound.
It was only when the thousands of ordinary people started flooding the Olympic Green, finally admitted in huge numbers courtesy of a ticket to the 91,000-capacity Bird's Nest stadium, that these Games came to life. They wore their hearts on their sleeves when their hero Liu Xiang pulled out of the 110m hurdles, and as the days went by they began to socialise easily, exuding genuine excitement as they marvelled at the dancing fountains in the pedestrianised precinct or delighted in the kaleidoscopic colour show that is the iconic Water Cube at night.
Until they had been admitted to the party the sport had been excellent but something had been missing. They made the Games, and they left the abiding impression that it was them – and not their leaders – who could make China.
The organisers should have realised that. Instead, they used fakery and stage management in the opening ceremony, and there was a sense that if they could they would have had canned applause piped into certain venues. Spectators were approached by volunteers in the various stadia telling them to make noise and teaching them clapping routines. Choreographed to the end.
Spontaneity is still a new concept in China. But this country's people have been under intense pressure, and maybe when the whole world isn't watching and scrutinising that could change.
With so much at stake and so many eyes trained on them, few have been willing to deviate from their directives, afraid to mess up. Which is why, for all the steps forward, this is not the time to judge China. This is a nation still learning how to think outwith the box and trust its own instincts. When that happens, this country will be ready to make its real mark on the world.
Additional reporting: Neil Russell, Michael Klimes and Andrew Jacobs