Beijing prepares for good and bad of Games

By Nick Mulvenney

— With a month to go before the Beijing Olympics begin, the city was too busy preparing for the glory and inconvenience of hosting the world's biggest sports event to celebrate much on Tuesday.

Thousands are putting the finishing touches to a capital still being transformed for the August 8-24 Games, and officials are fine-tuning the rules they hope will keep the city clean, safe and controlled.

"It might be inconvenient during the Games as I cannot drive my car everyday, but I am happy and excited about the approaching Olympics," said Zhou Wenjin, a 46-year-old who works for the National Fire Department.

The Beijing Games have become one of the most scrutinized Olympic Games in history, with the final countdown to the event marred by violent unrest in Tibet in March followed by global anti-Chinese protests.

To date, 31 venues have been completed and the army of migrant workers are putting the finishing touches to a $40 billion upgrade of the city's once-creaking infrastructure.

Hundreds of cranes dot Beijing's skyline above half-built skyscrapers and work continues on two new subway lines originally planned to be finished at the end of June but now due to come on line next week.

Gangs of workers have been planting hundreds of thousands of plants along the city's main thoroughfares, while others are repainting grimy traffic barriers and marking out lanes on the roads to ensure Olympic traffic will run smoothly.

Beijing's army of volunteers are in evidence on the streets.

Some of the 400,000 city volunteers in their blue and white uniforms wait at kiosks to answer questions from the 2.5 million visitors expected to arrive in Beijing in August.

A slate of security measures have been put in place to try to prevent more serious crimes, which has not pleased some.

"We have waited a long time for the Games, and as the Olympics is approaching, it brings troubles to residents in Beijing," said Jiang Yueming, 28, a graduate student in Renmin University.

"Bags must be checked when you take a subway, batteries cannot be sent by express mail. We are excited and extremely happy for the holding of Olympics Games, but it dwindles day by day."

Falling short

International Olympic Commitee (IOC) officials are in town for their "final project review" and will be present when the Main Press Centre and International Broadcast Centre are officially opened later on Tuesday.

These buildings on the Olympic Green will house the 21,600 media accredited to the Games with up to 10,000 more unaccredited reporters being catered for at the Beijing International Media Centre.

An official Chinese commentary on Tuesday celebrated the Games as a flowering of national pride and goodwill.

"Inspired by the Olympic spirit, the whole world gathers together and people see not confrontation and conflict but reconciliation and friendship," said the commentary in the People's Daily.

China's rulers wanted to use the Games to promote internal stability and show off a confident, increasingly influential economic power to the rest of the world.

But critics have said China is falling far short of the freedoms and standards it promised to win the Games.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Monday that China continues to severely breach its pledge to allow full media freedoms for the Games.

Visa restrictions for visitors, plans to rid Beijing of petitioners, the homeless and migrant workers as well as the tight control of the media on "sensitive" legs of the domestic torch relay point to obsessive stage-management.

China says it views terrorism as the biggest threat to the Games and a 100,000-strong anti-terrorism force is already on alert.

Rights groups say Beijing is using the threat of terrorism to suppress internal dissent, especially in the restive far-Western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, which is home to more than 8 million Muslim Uighurs.

Pollution casts pall

Beijing enjoyed fine, if hot and humid, weather after a huge weekend storm, which, if repeated during the Games, would be likely to cause organizational and transport chaos.

But the pollution, washed away by heavy rain, had again started to cast its pall over the city by Monday evening.

"I don't feel the environment is becoming that much better," said 35-year-old Beijing barber Li Guang.

The Games-time restrictions on traffic and factory emissions, which run for two months from July 20, will certainly make a difference but at a price to the people of the city.

"Security checks and traffic restrictions at that time will certainly affect my commuting, but I understand the government," said Wang Nan, a white-collar worker who already spends nearly three hours commuting every day.

"Safety is after all the most important thing. If there have to be more troubles, then let there be more troubles."

Copyright © 2008 Thompson Reuters

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Thompson Reuters – /uk.reuters.com/article/reutersComService_2_MOLT/ idUKN0343734020080708