August 7, 2009 / 4:22 AM / 8 years ago

Economics, politics dent Beijing's Olympic legacy

<p>A Chinese worker excavates an area in front of the National Aquatics Centre, also known as the Water Cube, in Beijing August 6, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray</p>

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - A year after Beijing hosted a spectacular summer Olympics, China’s capital sees more blue skies and less traffic jams, but economic crisis and sensitive political anniversaries have tarnished the post-Games halo.

The city spent billions of dollars on roads, subways, parks and a vast airport terminal in the build-up to the Games in August 2008. Polluting factories were shut down or moved to outlying provinces, and car use restricted.

“Beijing benefited greatly from the Games, which helped improve its infrastructure and urban ecosystem,” Jiang Xiaoyu, a former senior official with the Olympic organizing committee, wrote in the China Daily this week.

“This lasting legacy will continue to play an important role in propelling the city’s sustainable development,” wrote Jiang, who was the public face of the organizers.

But the lasting legacy of improved infrastructure has not been matched by the environment and rights gains the government promised, say critics, pointing to the grey skies and overwhelming political controls that still exist.

Instead, they say, the government has stepped up its harassment of human rights activists in this sensitive year.

June marked 20 years since the bloody crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen square and in October Beijing will celebrate six decades since the founding of Communist China.

“The status quo is things are as bad, and in some specific areas worse, than they were last year,” Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“As we’re heading toward Oct 1 ... we can expect to see more pressure, more harassment, more repression, of people such as dissidents, human rights defenders, and we’ll probably see a clean-out sweep of ‘undesirables’ from Beijing such as petitioners, sex workers and beggars.”

TOURISM HIT

Pollution levels seem to have dropped, but on some days the air still smells acrid and buildings just a few hundred meters away can appear smudged in smog.

“Some indicators have come down,” said noted environmentalist Ma Jun. “There are ongoing efforts, for instance to use natural gas and cut coal in Beijing. But cars have become a big problem.”

And some improvements are simply due to factories shutting shop as the global economic slowdown decimated demand.

The financial crisis has hit Beijing’s overseas tourism sector hard, keeping nearly empty some of the glamorous hotels opened in anticipation of a surge in Olympic-related travelers.

They got off to a bad start when that influx of visitors never materialized in the first place due to visa restrictions to keep out potential trouble-makers.

Some of the city’s new, upmarket hotels have in recent weeks had less than 10 percent occupancy, according to industry sources, though they also pointed out that summer is traditionally Beijing’s low season for travelers.

But new visa controls ahead of October’s 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China are not helping.

On top of that, Beijing’s much vaunted pledge to ensure media freedoms granted to the foreign press ahead of and during the Games would be extended indefinitely, has not been fully implemented, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said.

There has been some progress in the year following the Olympics, with the government allowing fairly free reporting of last month’s Xinjiang riots for example, but problems remain.

“Intimidation of sources and domestic staff mar this progress toward internationally acceptable reporting conditions,” the group said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sugita Katyal

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