Clifford Coonan: Will China keep the flame alight?

Clear blue skies. A shiny, fast-moving new city. The warm applause of a global audience. And a fantastic haul of gold medals to boot. The Communist Party will be very happy this weekend when the closing festivities of the Beijing Olympic Games mark, as predicted, China's re-emergence as a global superpower.

China is a country where very often you can say one thing and the opposite is also true, and in line with this dictum, it's been an Olympics of opposites. On the one hand you had the spectacular opening ceremony, the fabulous organisation of events, the warmth and optimism of the Beijing people and the wonderful atmosphere in the city.

For sure there is a lot for President Hu Jintao's government, and the people of the capital, to cheer about. A fierce security crackdown meant no bomb attacks such as the explosion at the Atlanta Games. A similarly draconian clampdown on dissent, which defied Olympic promises about freedom of expression, has left human rights protesters waving their banners at the fringes of the world's biggest sporting event, far from the broader consciousness of billions of viewers. Even the air was clean, most of the time, after months of fretting about whether it would be possible to clear the smog in time. They did, although it cost a fortune in lost production when closing the factories and coal-fired power plants responsible for much of the bad air.

This broadly upbeat picture masks some harsh truths, however. You have the worried husband whose dissident wife's trial on trumped-up charges has been delayed until the Olympic bandwagon leaves town. Or the little old ladies threatened with a labour camp for demanding the right to protest about their forced eviction. In the run-up to the games, thousands of Beijing residents were removed for the Olympic makeover; dissidents were rounded up, and 400,000 security officials patrolled the streets.

The contradictions go even deeper. TV audiences did not see a poor country when they tuned into the Olympic fun. China hired architects Herzog & de Meuron to build its Olympic stadium and Sir Norman Foster to build its airport. Yet there are still 300 million people living on less than a pound a day here. President Hu Jintao has promised further reforms post-Olympics, even hinting at elusive political reform.

For many groups lobbying for more freedoms in China, and critical of Beijing's policies on Tibet and Xinjiang and its curbs on human rights, the Olympics have been a disaster and have acted as a catalyst for abuse. The leadership will be happy with the Games, just as veteran dissidents such as the jailed Aids activist Hu Jia feared they would, but people on the streets are hopeful the more tolerant China revealed during these Games will also prevail.

One of the most potent examples of the warmer China was the reaction to 110-metre hopeful Liu Xiang's hobbling out of contention, despite expectations of a triumph having been built up beyond belief. People were gutted, but they did not call for his head on a spike, and this can be read as a sign of a more tolerant society emerging. People come out with truisms common in the West, but rare in China until now, about how taking part is what really counts. The fact that China will come out with a staggering 45 gold medals probably helps.

The very air itself poses a major challenge for the government. When people taste a good thing for two months, it's hard to go back to the way it was, particularly in a country where pollution is becoming a political issue as farmers and urban residents alike take to the streets to protest at the building of poisonous chemical plants and are unhappy that their legacy to their children – and in most cases that's a single child – will be yellow air and black rivers.

For the rest of the year, the government's attention will turn to the economy and to celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the launch of the "reform and opening" policies that have swept away state controls over much of economic and cultural life. Inflation was running at more than 6 per cent in July, and while the economy is still growing by double-digit per cent, the global outlook is less than rosy and that will impact on China at some point.

Beijing organiser spokesman Wang Wei says that he stuck by his message that the Olympic Games would help China to open up and reform better. "China is developing quickly. People enjoy more freedom and they have a lot to say. If you ask the ordinary Chinese on the street they will say the same. You have to believe the majority of the people, otherwise you are misled," he said.

There is something to Wang's point. In China, the vast majority of people believe that reform by the Communist Party has improved their lot – it has taken hundreds of millions off the poverty line and restored pride in the nation. For the record, the majority also believe Tibet was, is and always will be Chinese. The Olympic gold haul is as perfect an illustration of that new-found pride, of the end to what the Chinese see as centuries of humiliation by foreign powers. Now the world is watching to see how China deals with its new global influence.

The reaction to criticism of China remains on an incredibly short fuse and the government is quick to whip up anti-foreigner sentiment when it helps to boost the Communist Party's standing, as we saw in the way the Olympic torch relay's tortuous progress through the West became a focus for tensions. French stores were picketed and anti-French propaganda followed speculation that Nicolas Sarkozy might see the Dalai Lama. This is not the behaviour of a sophisticated superpower, rather that of a developing country with an inferiority complex.

Now it remains to be seen, going forward, if the Olympic spirit is enough to teach China to accept criticism. And keep on a path of reform.