China's first Olympics leaves pride, regrets

Beijing  - Hundreds of millions of television viewers across the world saw China for the first time in August, or at least they saw a new side of the vast nation of 1.3 billion people.

The extravagant opening and closing ceremonies and the perfectly organized Olympic events at spectacular venues won heartfelt praise from international Olympic officials and spurred deep national pride in many ordinary Chinese citizens.

"I think ordinary Chinese people were excited about the Olympics," said Zhang Ming, a politics professor at People's University in Beijing.

"Beijing people were very proud of holding the Olympics," Zhang told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

"You could feel the emotion, especially from the young people," he said. "From websites or in ordinary life, you could see that young people were very supportive of the nation, and they were proud that China was strong."

Global television audiences did not see the hordes of migrant construction workers, or the impoverished rural villages they left behind to earn a modest living building Olympic venues.

They also saw little of the careful control of Beijing and other major cities by hundreds of thousand of volunteers, security guards, police and special forces.

New York-based Human Rights in China accused the ruling Communist Party of holding the Olympics amid "enforced harmony."

"Yet the carefully orchestrated facade could not conceal a police state that tramples on human rights," said Sharon Hom, HRIC's executive director.

Xiao Fan, a partner in a Beijing accountancy firm, said Chinese people were "used to the situation" of political control.

"People don't feel uncomfortable when we don't have human rights," Xiao told dpa. China's huge population compared with developed nations made it "impossible for every Chinese to have human rights," he said.

The International Olympic Committee frequently repeated its "keep politics out of sport" message in the run-up to the games.

It sometimes also claimed that the Olympics would automatically lead to improvements in human rights in the host nation.

Today, most rights groups accuse China of making virtually no progress in human rights since it was awarded the games in 2001.

"The 2008 Beijing games have put an end - once and for all - to the notion that these Olympics are a force for good," Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director of US-based Human Rights Watch, said at the end of the Beijing games.

"The reality is that the Chinese government's hosting of the games has been a catalyst for abuses," Richardson said.

In early November, the China Human Rights Defenders group said the government was "still settling scores with those who 'created trouble' during the games." The group cited several cases of would- be rights protestors who were recently arrested or jailed.

Zhang accepts that there was "no essential change" in human rights, but he points to greater openness for foreign media and the unblocking of news websites such as the BBC.

Some people do see benefits on other areas. Xiao enjoyed the opening and closing ceremonies, but Beijing's traffic-free roads during the Olympics were his best memory.

"The traffic moved smoothly with no jams," he said. "The air quality was wonderful because people didn't burn fuel and emit pollution."

The IOC initially expressed concern about air pollution but it was convinced by Beijing's pre-Olympic clean-up measures.

"It was quite convenient to get to work, and order was good in public places," said Cao Hongsha, who worked for the Olympic broadcaster during the games and now runs a Beijing bar.

The new subway lines, whose construction was accelerated for the Olympics, are operating at high capacity, taking pressure off Beijing's overused roads, and some restrictions on vehicle use were extended.

The government said its focus on public transport and its use of "environmentally friendly" technology in Olympic venues reflected party leader and state President Hu Jintao's "scientific concept of development."

It rejected claims that Olympic spending, which many estimates put at more than 40 billion dollars, hampered China's economic growth.

"Beijing's Olympic investment accounted for less than 1 per cent of the country's annual fixed-asset investment for the past seven years," commerce minister Chen Deming said recently.

Zhang disagrees, believing the Olympics "played a negative role in economic growth," citing the closures of many polluting factories and restrictions on movement of people.

He also questions the wisdom of building the iconic "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium, and has doubts about how much it will be used in the future.

"We wanted to show our best side with no defects," Zhang said. "I think this is unnecessary."

"We spent so much money and energy, and we lost a lot," he said. (dpa)