What will the dragon breathe in the years after the 2008 Summer Olympics conclude?
Will it be fresh air in the form of expanded economic reform, political change and environmental concern - or rhetorical smoke to continue justifying an overly intrusive governmental hand?
I asked myself a similar question during a visit to China in 2001, after listening to a group representing the Beijing Olympic Committee make its pitch for the privilege of hosting the games. And I found myself asking it again when the International Olympic Committee announced Beijing as its choice a few months later.
Today, as unquestionably spectacular ceremonies and contests unfold in and around the Beijing National Stadium, the answers remain unclear.
China's rulers would have us believe that broader reform is not only inevitable but reflective of their own intentions. Just before the games, President Hu Jintao outlined a plan for "comprehensive" economic and political reforms in the wake of the Olympics.
Although I sincerely hope that is what happens, I also understand how a moribund ideology - and communism is indeed such a beast - can bite and claw as it struggles to hold on to what it once fully claimed. Consider Beijing's brutal crackdown in Tibet on the eve of the games. Ultimately, though, the death throes cannot last. Whether China's leaders truly wish it or not, the games signify the freedom to soar that they cannot artificially restrict for much longer.
The issue of further economic reform, with the goal of encouraging stable growth, is necessity No. 1. To do otherwise - especially given recent signs of the global economic slowdown's effect on China - would present the leadership with its worst nightmare: the failure to bring an increasing number of Chinese into better economic circumstances. Absent such success, which has provided the communists a prop for decades, the much-touted, widespread satisfaction of the Chinese people would quickly disappear.
The topic of political change naturally and closely follows that of economic reform. For Hu to mention the subject with such prominence in connection with the Olympics was clearly significant. But is it realistic to think in terms of political developments that could match China's economic gains?
Perhaps not on the accelerated schedule that I have in mind, but it is possible. Imagine what could happen in China if, for example, the government extended its experiments with village democracy to higher levels. Over time, along with other reforms, it would not be far-fetched for China to evolve into a "Big Taiwan."
In that direction would lie inspiring possibilities, particularly in light of the much-improved relationship between Beijing and Taipei, largely driven by the commitment of President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan's recently elected leader, to reach out to China.
Finally, the environment. I have seen China's pollution and other environmental problems - mainly the consequence of mind-boggling growth - at their worst. And I have listened to Beijing's promises to make improvements and turn the Olympics into a "green showcase." While not meeting everyone's expectations, China has made unmistakable progress in various areas. Can it be sustained and will an incentive still exist once the Olympic spotlight goes away?
One reason for optimism is that the resources exist. A country that can spend $42 billion to host the Olympics obviously has the means to raise environmental protection to a consistently high priority - without compromising prosperity. In any case, during the long term, it is in China's best interest, and the planet's, for that to occur.
For too long, the dragon has breathed smoke. The people of China and the world deserve an era of fresh air.