Has the prospect of hosting the Games widened political freedoms in China or improved other aspects of life?
Far from heralding a relaxation, the 2008 Games have actually led to increased repression, according to international human rights group Amnesty International. Beijing had promised improvements in its human rights record, but the head of Amnesty's German chapter said in December that she expected to see "an increase in harassment, detentions, and people placed under house arrest ahead of the Games."
That is because Beijing officials are anxious to present a facade of harmony to the world and its journalists. The government is expected to try even harder than usual to keep anybody who might disturb that image – protesters against religious repression, Tibetan rights activists, or AIDS patients complaining about inadequate government care – out of sight.
Foreign journalists have been told they will be free to report anything from China, but local reporters are still subject to strict censorship.
Opponents of the Beijing government will undoubtedly use the Olympics, and the presence of 10,000 foreign media personnel, to try to publicize their causes. The Chinese police will undoubtedly try to stop them. Expect cat-and-mouse games outside the sports venues.
Still, Beijing residents are enjoying somewhat cleaner air as authorities struggle to reduce pollution ahead of the Games. "That's a real sign of international criteria interacting with a developing nation and requiring a shift of consciousness," says Martin Jacques, a London-based writer on Chinese affairs.
Will the Games be a success?
On the architectural and civil engineering front, China's preparations for the 2008 Games have won nothing but praise from the International Olympic Committee: the "bird's nest" Olympic stadium is spectacular and all construction work is on – or ahead of – schedule.