BEIJING The Olympic flame is out, the smog is back, and traffic again clogs the roads.
Welcome to what commentators are calling China's "post-Olympic era," in which euphoria over the Beijing Games is slowly giving way to economic worries, new safety crises and a future both brimming with confidence and tinged with uncertainty.
So far, it's off to a rocky start.
China received widespread praise for organizing the games, which formally ended Wednesday with the Paralympics' closing ceremony.
Even before then, however, reality reasserted itself with the collapse earlier this month at an illegal mine waste dump that killed at least 259 people and forced the resignation of a provincial governor. Since then, a product safety scandal has roiled the nation, with contaminated milk powder causing the death of three infants and sickening more than 6,200 others.
Both crises point to underlying systemic weaknesses that the Olympics did little to eliminate, despite a massive effort to clean up Beijing's polluted air, boost security and ensure smooth logistics. China's mines remain the world's deadliest and creaky infrastructure a constant threat, while an overhaul of the product safety system has proved only partially effective.
A further post-Olympics worry is the state of the weakening economy, raising the prospect of unemployment and higher inflation in what remains a poor nation. Chinese shares fell Wednesday to a 22-month low and the communist leadership, ever mindful of threats to its authority, is on alert for possible unrest.
"The top priority will be responding to the grievances generated by economic problems," said Joseph Cheng, chairman of the Contemporary China Research Center at City University of Hong Kong.
"The broad direction of enhanced international status remains, but most people are more concerned with immediate problems," he said.
China's leaders appear bolstered by a wave of national pride, although questions linger over the prospects for social progress and whether the games will yield hoped for international prestige and acceptance.
The games' most tangible impact was the new subways and ultramodern venues built at a cost of more than $40 billion. That legacy will continue to provide an economic driver: Developers envision a major entertainment district rising around the Olympic basketball arena in the city's underdeveloped west, with shops, restaurants and apartments sprouting where temporary sports fields stand.
Yet the games were always about far more than stadiums and parks, embodying China's craving for acceptance and international respect. Some too saw them as a potential catalyst for political and social change, as a confident regime grows more accepting of criticism.
There's little sign of that happening, though. Authorities tightly controlled dissent during the games, refusing protest permits and deporting foreign pro-Tibet activists who staged brief demonstrations. Chinese press restrictions are as tight as ever, sensitive Internet sites remain blocked, and Web editors reportedly were told to delete worrisome comments about the state of the economy.
Liberalized rules for overseas media enacted for the Olympic period are to expire Oct. 17, the Foreign Ministry has said, posing the likelihood that restrictions on travel and reporting will be restored.
Following the games, authorities will continue stifling calls for greater political freedoms while seeking to fine-tune the government's ability to resolve conflicts and guide public opinion, said Andrew Nathan, a China expert who heads the political science department at New York's Columbia University.
"The regime has shown what it can accomplish and has gained both domestic legitimacy and international respect," Nathan said.
Officials have cast the games as a triumph for understanding between China and the outside world. Chinese are now "more relaxed about different opinions about their homeland," Fu Ying, China's ambassador to Britain, wrote in The Guardian newspaper this month.
Others have suggested the praise China won for hosting the games could allow it to begin abandoning a deep-seated national resentment against the West and Japan for past indignities.
"Having realized the 'dream of the century,' perhaps it is time to relegate the 'century of humiliation' to history where it belongs," commentator Hong Liang wrote in the official English-language China Daily newspaper.
With the games over, some of the pressure on China from overseas critics should subside, according to Cheng and others.
Yet, staging a successful Olympics has done little to improve China's political reputation in the long-run, according to Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University
"This implies that the international political troubles our nation faces exceeds our ability to respond," Yan wrote in the Global Times, a tabloid published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper.
Citing continuing complaints over China's human rights record, treatment of minorities and control of the Internet, Yan said China's diplomatic and public relations efforts of recent years have largely failed.
"How to maintain China's political interests has become a problem that needs to be urgently resolved," Yan wrote.