It's a Great Leap Forward for China, Joyous Beijing Declares


A sense of validation and vindication swept across this ancient capital Friday as throngs of jubilant residents celebrated their victory in the derby to host the Olympics.

Revelers erupted into cheers when Olympic officials in Moscow proclaimed Beijing the winner of the right to put on the 2008 Summer Games. Tens of thousands of people marched on Tiananmen Square in one of the biggest spontaneous outpourings of popular sentiment since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.

Flags flew, fireworks burst and eight years of smarting over Beijing's narrow loss in a similar vote in 1993 finally came to an end.

"It's about time the world gave China a chance," declared college student Liu Wenpeng, 23. "China is a big country with a huge population, but it has never held a big international sporting event."

For many here, the decision was affirmation that their nation had at long last arrived and that its status as a global player had been recognized. Many Chinese, from scholars to officials to ordinary citizens, feel that China does not receive the respect due a country with more than one-fifth of humanity and thousands of years of history. The Olympic vote was seen as a referendum of sorts on their nation's progress and international standing.

"It's an honor for all Chinese," said Bai Fang, 22, who is studying to be a lawyer. "This will promote China's standing in the world."

The state-run New China News Agency agreed, calling the victory "another milestone in China's rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation. . . . Winning the host right means winning the respect, trust and favor of the international community."

Municipal officials spent three years crafting their application and basked in reports that their city was the clear front-runner going into Friday's balloting in Russia.

But the government tried to dampen expectations in recent days, mindful of its embarrassment in 1993, when Sydney beat out Beijing by two votes for the 2000 Games. Back then, the Chinese briefly misunderstood the outcome and thought that they had won, only to be stunned to discover that they had not.

"Let's wait quietly tonight," suggested the People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece.

The plea was in vain. News of Beijing's triumph came about 10:10 p.m. local time, after a 10-hour countdown on national television. The celebration was immediate.

"We won! We won!" the Chinese Central Television network splashed in big red characters across the screen.

Residents who had stayed glued to TV sets in living rooms, hotels and bars poured onto the streets, chanting, honking car horns, blowing whistles and often singling out foreigners to crow over their success.

On the west side of town, thousands of people went wild at an official ceremony in front of Beijing's Millennium Tower, releasing the pent-up emotion of hours, if not weeks, of anticipation.

In front of the tower, a gleaming public monument meant to symbolize the modernity of "new Beijing," singers and dancers backed by flashing lights praised the Olympic spirit and China's five-starred red flag. Spectators flashed victory signs and waved their arms in "We Are the World" fashion.

"I hope the whole nation works hard along with residents in the capital to successfully host the 2008 Olympic Games," President Jiang Zemin told the crowd. Premier Zhu Rongji was with him.

Officials claim that 95% of Beijingers supported the Olympic bid. A sizable number streamed into Tiananmen Square to celebrate well into the early hours today, forcing police to divert cars from Beijing's historic Avenue of Eternal Peace, which cuts across the top of the square.

Mao Xiao, 56, drove an hour from her suburban home to get into downtown Beijing, then walked another hour to get to the square to join the revelry.

Eight years ago, "our hopes were high, and then they were dashed," she said, clutching a little Chinese flag. "Today they've come true."

Events in the square in 1989, when army tanks rolled in and massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, were believed to have helped sink Beijing's 1993 bid.

Concerns over human rights abuses in China continued to dog the city's application. Organizers hastily dropped a proposal to hold the beach volleyball event in Tiananmen Square, an idea that struck many outside observers as politically insensitive at best.

For months, officials have been eager to show a softer, friendlier side of Beijing, even as the Communist regime pursued its harsh campaign against members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, threw scholars into jail and cracked down on the media and Internet cafes.

Cabbies were ordered to brush up on their English, with officially approved phrases such as "Pollution is a global problem." While that's true, Beijing's pollution ranks among the worst.

The Three Tenors--Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo--performed in the Forbidden City and professed their support of Beijing's bid. American boxer Evander Holyfield, in town to train for a fight here next month, declared his love for the city.

With its horrendous traffic, choking smog and inadequate infrastructure, Beijing faces the daunting task of turning its ambitious plans into reality in seven years.

Stadiums are yet to be built, roads improved and the air cleaned up, but China's authoritarian system is likely to kick into high gear, mobilizing labor and pushing past the bloated bureaucracy.

Organizers also know that the international spotlight will be on their city like never before. Proponents of Beijing's bid hope that the scrutiny will encourage reform and foster a greater sense of civil liberty, although critics are skeptical.

Qiao Bin, 27, welcomes the attention. "Lots of foreigners don't have an accurate understanding of China--they're either out of date or misled by the foreign media," he said, echoing a common grievance here. "It will be a good chance to show the real China to the world."

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