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China relishes Olympics legacy

Beijing enjoys a better subway system and air quality thanks to the 2008 Games. National pride has flourished. But the political openness promised last year has not.

By Correspondent / August 9, 2009

People cheered after a mass tai chi performance outside Beijing's National Stadium Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of China hosting the Olympics.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP



Up close, the National Stadium shows sign of disrepair, its steel struts streaked with dirt and dents. Its soaring gray lattice frame bleeds into the gray smog.

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For Yang Hongying and hundreds of other Chinese tourists streaming inside, though, the Olympics stadium is a symbol of national pride. "It looks fabulous. I saw it on TV last year and now I'm seeing the real thing," she says, clutching a 3-D jigsaw of the stadium that she just bought for her son.

One year after Beijing hosted the Summer Games, its impact can be seen in the city's sporting venues, shiny new infrastructure, and improved air quality, notwithstanding the latest smog. As the world watched, China radiated efficiency, sportsmanship, and pluck, on and off the field.

But any hopes that the Beijing Olympics would spur more political openness, as members of the Olympics movement had claimed, were short-lived. In the run-up, China tightened its grip on domestic criticism and lashed out at the world for "meddling" in Tibet during an ill-fated international torch relay. Since then, there have been more clampdowns.

Far from easing China into a world of human rights and obligations, the Olympics may have had the opposite effect. Its Communist leaders used the reflected glory to tighten their grip and hammer home a message of unflinching national superiority, says Russell Moses, a political analyst in Beijing.

"Beijing made it plain. This wasn't China coming out to the world. This was the world coming round to China," he says.

Beijing boasts 246 'blue-sky days'

In a blaze of publicity to mark the anniversary, government officials have highlighted the environmental legacy of the Games. These include a fleet of 4,000 natural-gas buses, a vastly expanded subway system, and new forests around the capital. Polluting factories have been relocated, while rotating curbs on private car usage adopted during the Olympics in order to improve air quality have been prolonged.

Indeed, Beijing's air has never been cleaner, according to official data. Last year, 246 days were classified as blue-sky, though monitoring by the US embassy has given a grimier picture.

Nonetheless, most residents say air pollution has eased and that public transport is an increasingly popular way to get around the city.

Olympic habits hold: less spitting, more exercise

Equally tangible, perhaps, are gains in what China's leaders call "spiritual civilization" – politeness, lining up for buses, not spitting in public. Beijing residents were ordered to shed such habits before the Games so as not to offend foreign visitors. Surveys quantified progress using a "good behavior index" that trended upwards.