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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

At a press conference held Friday, Liu Qi, director of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, praised the role of volunteers in making the Games a resounding success. He said the focus on sustainability in preparing the city would continue to shape its development. "Let the Olympic spirit stay in Beijing forever," he said.

Chinese athletes won 51 gold medals in 2008, beating the United States into second place, though Americans won more medals overall. Chinese officials say more people now exercise regularly as a result of the Games. But grass-roots sports such as soccer continue to struggle, as resources go to prepare more Olympics hopefuls in elite sports like rowing.

Event still evokes national pride

Like many host cities, Beijing faces the challenge of putting Olympics venues to good use. Several are due to be knocked down and rebuilt, while an artificial beach for volleyball has been reopened for public use.

The 91,000-capacity National Stadium has staged a handful of concerts over the past year and hosted an Italian soccer match on Saturday. Most days, it sees a steady flow of tourists who pay $7 to stroll around the track and shop for official souvenirs that include a palm-sized square of grass from the field – yours for $15.

For the family of Zhou Shibo, a fifth-grader, the stadium was the first stop on a city tour. He said holding the Olympics had enabled China to develop faster. "I'm very proud that this stadium was built by Chinese people," he says.

Other tourists offered similar praise, echoing the relentlessly upbeat tone in China's tightly controlled media. Many said the Olympics had allowed the world to see a new China and that foreigners had come away impressed.

Only Zhang Jianhua, an entrepreneur from the port city of Dalian, appeared nonplussed, as he gazed around the vast stadium where two giant screens showed highlights from the Games. "As a Chinese citizen, I feel a little uncomfortable. It was a good Olympics. But we spent too much money," he says.

For press freedom, mixed results

In the run-up to the Games, under pressure from Olympics officials, China eased its rules on the movements of foreign media. It has since extended these freedoms, though foreign reporters continue to face intimidation and are barred from travelling freely to Tibet and, since the recent violence, Xinjiang.

"The Olympics is a case study of enormous lost opportunities, especially in talking to people here in China about the outside world. It was a one-way conversation," says Mr. Moses.

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