As Britain basks in the glow of its successful Olympics, the thought that comes to this China specialist’s mind is, what a difference four years makes. There is a striking contrast indeed, where China is concerned, between the largely positive international chatter about that country in mid-2008, as the Beijing Games concluded, and the largely negative buzz about it now.

The change in China’s fortunes has little to do with medal counts or world records. Still, a look back to the Beijing Games helps place then-and-now contrasts into sharp relief.

Plenty of criticisms were leveled at China’s leaders just before the 2008 Olympics over issues such as repression in Tibet, and the Games were hardly free of controversy either, thanks to complaints about everything from parts of the opening ceremonies being faked (for example, the fireworks that looked like footprints in the sky being doctored digital effects) to underage gymnasts competing on the Chinese team. And yet, overall, a lot of things went right for the Party four years ago. As a result, a good number of international observers came away from China’s first Olympics seeing the country much as its leaders desperately want it to be seen: as a country that is respectful of its past yet surging toward a prosperous future; that is no longer poor, chaotic, isolated, with leaders prone to ideological extremism, personality cult rule, and factional infighting.

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