The opening ceremony of the summer Olympics takes place Friday in Beijing. The games come seven years after the International Olympic Committee selected the Chinese capital to host the events, saying the games would help change China.
Critics argued against a Beijing Olympics, given the host country's human rights record. They now say the games have not triggered meaningful change.
The Beijing Olympics are as politicized as the games get. They have attracted Tibetan demonstrators outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington and Darfur activists outside the New York studios of Olympics broadcaster NBC.
There also were protesters greeting the Olympic torch during its relay, and there has been pressure on political leaders to avoid the games.
Even back in July 2001, when Beijing was named Olympic host, human rights activists said China didn't deserve the games. But officials at the International Olympic Committee said hosting the Olympics would transform China.
That hasn't happened, says T. Kumar of Amnesty International.
"Because of Olympics, certain types of abuses are increasing in China," Kumar says. "These abuses are directly connected to the organization of Olympics. To have a smooth Olympics, they are basically abusing the rights of their own citizens at this moment."
Kumar cites the bulldozing of neighborhoods for Olympic-related development, and a short list of government actions seemingly aimed at making the games dissident free: imprisoning people in labor camps in an effort to "re-educate" them; silencing human rights defenders and political activists — and harassing and abusing their lawyers; and tightening Internet restrictions.
Explosive Economic Growth
This is largely an external view. In China, there is enormous enthusiasm for the games and widespread satisfaction with the direction of the country, according to a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project poll of 3,000 mostly urban Chinese.
"The Chinese are celebrating the success of their economy," says Andrew Kohut, who supervised the polling. "They're satisfied with their country and 82 percent say their economy is good. What's extraordinary about it is that it is almost a universal opinion. It's shared by just about everyone we polled."
Explosive economic growth means the Chinese people have more money than ever, more ways to spend that money, and more freedom to work, live and travel where they want.
But that's not due to the Olympics, says John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist, which has analyzed the political and economic impacts of the Beijing games.
"China is a freer, better, richer place than it was when it was awarded the games," Micklethwait says. "But actually at closer examination, what seemed to come through was, firstly, it's more to do with things like opening up the economy as a whole, and to do with odd things like the spread of mobile telephony, the impact of that type of freedom. By contrast, most of the actual impact of the games themselves have tended to be in the opposite direction."
Conflict Over Press Freedom
The criticism of China waned a bit in the wake of the May earthquake that killed about 70,000 people. But it's back, as thousands of journalists descend on Beijing. Some arrived to find a clear example of how the games did not spur openness.
They had been promised freedom to report, but found they couldn't access key Internet sites from the Olympic Press Centers, including BBC China and Amnesty International.
That prompted the following confrontation last week between reporters and Beijing Olympic spokesman Sun Weide.
"The Internet access in China is fully open," Sun said.
"It's not true, sir," one reporter responded.
"Organizers of the Olympic Games have been providing sufficient and convenient Internet access,"Sun said.
"That's not true. That doesn't answer the question, sir," the reporter countered.
The International Olympic Committee pressured Chinese authorities to honor the promise of unhindered reporting, and some Web sites are now accessible. But others continue to remain off-limits.
Human Rights Issues
The IOC has not used the same bully pulpit to stridently pressure China on human rights, and that disappoints Kumar, he says. He cites language in the IOC's own charter.
"Olympics stands for some dignity and human rights issues," Kumar says. "So they have a duty and responsibility. They are not doing it for whatever reason."
International Olympic Committee spokeswoman Giselle Davies says, "It has to be remembered that the IOC is a sports organization and electing Beijing as the host city some seven years ago was really with a vision to see how sport and the coming together of the world could have a positive impact. But it's not for us to make direct statements on the matter of human rights. It's really a discussion between governments and the relevant organizations, who are the experts in this field."
Government-to-government talk about human rights is expected when President Bush arrives in Beijing for the Olympics. He plans to spend four days mixing politics and sports. The president also enlisted U.S. Olympians in a more subtle form of diplomacy, when he addressed them last month in the White House Rose Garden.
"You'll represent America's love for freedom and our regard for human rights and human dignity," Bush said. "You'll represent that to other athletes and to the people of China."
But once the games begin, expect the politics to be overshadowed, says Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. He says Beijing is still the right choice.
"So, absolutely no regrets," Rogge says. "I would say that I'm sure that come the ninth of August, the day after the opening ceremony, the magic of the games and the flawless organization will take over."
Unless human rights protesters manage to get past security — or activist athletes risk the wrath of Olympic and Chinese authorities by speaking out in the Olympic spotlight.