BEIJING - Hundreds of thousands of people streamed into the streets of the Chinese capital last night to celebrate Beijing's selection as the host city for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in one of the biggest block parties this nation has seen in many years.
Beijing's otherwise staid downtown spontaneously erupted in good cheer as cars jammed the roads and filled the air with a cacophony of honking horns. Passengers stuck out of windows and sunroofs, waving whatever they could find: red Chinese flags, old T-shirts, crumpled newspapers, feather dusters and badminton rackets.
As fireworks burst in the overcast sky, the city's main, eight-lane boulevard, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, became a walking street. Throngs marched on the city center, Tiananmen Square, exchanging high-fives, posing for photos and shouting, "Long live China!"
"We're all very happy," said Zhou Lihua, 36, a factory manager who arrived yesterday morning with her video camera from the northeastern city of Shenyang in anticipation of the festivities. "I'm too excited to go to sleep."
The International Olympic Committee had just selected Beijing on the second ballot with 56 votes. Toronto received 22 votes, Paris 18 and Istanbul, Turkey, nine. Osaka, Japan, was eliminated in the first round.
For China, last night's victory seemed to be one of politics, economics and population over human rights concerns. A variety of groups and officials, ranging from Tibetan freedom activists to the European Parliament, had opposed Beijing's bid on the grounds that it would reward China's authoritarian regime and its dismal human rights record.
China's sheer size, the lure of its potential market of 1.3 billion people, Beijing's rapid modernization and the desire to spread the Games around geographically appeared to win out in the end. Working against Paris, for instance, was that two future Olympics are already scheduled for Europe: Athens will have the Summer Games in 2004, and Turin, Italy, will have the Winter Games in 2006.
In pouring into the streets last night, Beijingers seemed to shake off past failure and what amounts to something of a national inferiority complex. Chinese sometimes complain that despite years of rapid economic development and relative political stability, they don't receive the international respect they feel they deserve.
"The world is recognizing China," said Zhang Yongxiang, 38, a teacher at Beijing Technical University.
Yesterday's outdoor party was unexpected in a nation where the regime tries to prohibit or control large gatherings of any sort for fear they will become politicized. In the past two weeks, the government had tried to dampen expectations to avoid a backlash if Beijing lost.
In yesterday's People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper, "We no longer tie the fate of the country and the nationality simply to a big sports event," said an editorial titled, "We'll Wait Quietly Tonight."
Last nights' response was anything but quiet, and it stood in stark contrast to eight years ago when Beijing lost the 2000 Summer Games to Sydney by two votes.
Bitter and angry, many people blamed America for the loss because the U.S. House of Representatives had strongly opposed the bid. Only four years earlier, soldiers had crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, slaughtering unarmed demonstrators.
Later, Australian Olympic officials admitted that they had offered money to members of two delegations to throw their votes to Sydney instead of Beijing.
Last night, the scene on the square was reminiscent of the jubilation of the pro-democracy demonstrations a dozen years ago. Only this time, there were no tanks. And instead of excoriating China's Communist Party leaders, thousands cheered them.
As loudspeakers blared patriotic songs, university students waved school flags and people sang along to tunes such as "Our Dear Country From Now Will Walk on the Path of Prosperity" and "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China."
About 11:30, crowds in Tiananmen rushed toward the ornate Gate of Heavenly Peace and burst into cheers as Chinese President Jiang Zemin appeared on the rostrum above the famous painting of Mao Tse-tung.
Some said last night that they hoped the Olympics would give China a chance to know the outside world better and provide a chance for the world to see how far China has come since it opened up two decades ago and began instituting market reforms.
"The thoughts and minds of the Chinese will be more open," predicted Liu Qunqun, 39, who works here for Cummins Inc., an Indiana-based maker of diesel engines.
Amid all the enthusiasm were occasional reminders of how far China still must go if it wants to win world approval in 2008. As a reporter chatted with a migrant worker outside the Beijing Railway Station, a railway police officer tried to break up the interview.
Never mind that the worker, a 48-year-old man named Li Wei from Inner Mongolia, had nothing but nice things to say about Beijing's successful bid.
"Have you gotten permission to interview here?" the officer asked as he sat down between the reporter and the worker, intimidating the latter and effectively ending the interview. Later, the officer asked to see the journalist's ID card and suggested he go elsewhere to interview.
About 2:15 a.m., many hundreds of police seized back Tiananmen Square, lest the mass party take on political overtones.
"Selection as an Olympic site is a great honor to the Chinese people," Xiao Qiang, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based watchdog group, said in a written statement last night. "The Chinese government must not dishonor this prestigious opportunity by violating the rights of its citizens."