Beijing Olympics official cites pollution concerns

Updated: May 16, 2007, 7:56 PM ET
Associated Press

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Air quality remains a major concern ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a top official organizing China's first Games said Wednesday.

Factories belching pollution as they fuel breakneck economic growth and dust blowing from thousands of local work sites and western deserts frequently brown the skies over China's capital.

While pollution controls are having an effect -- Beijing experienced 241 "good air quality days" last year, up from 100 in 1998 -- there's room for progress, said Wang Wei, secretary general of the Games' organizing committee.

"We want to make sure the athletes have the best air quality," Wang, who is visiting the United States for four days, told a conference sponsored by Asia Society Southern California.

In a subsequent interview, Wang dismissed as "an old topic" international concerns about another area where China has an image problem -- human rights.

Critics of China's authoritarian government hope to swing the Olympic spotlight to issues where Beijing promised reforms before it won these Games in 2001. Wang told reporters then that he thought the Games could "promote" human rights.

"I think that human rights conditions keep improving in China," Wang told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "And I think this is going to be a good thing for the general social progress including human rights, that's no problem."

A report last month from Amnesty International echoed the refrain that China is limiting freedom of political dissidents, human rights activists and followers of the Falun Gong faith. The Olympics, Amnesty concluded, are actually prompting a crackdown, including sweeps of petty criminals and vagrants considered a potential blemish on the Games' happy face.

The Games, which begin Aug. 8, 2008, represent a coming out party for a nation that has turned decades of stagnation into a staggering resurgence.

Though Wang tried to tamp down expectations, he called the Games a "golden opportunity for us to showcase the new China."

"The world does not really know as much about China as we wish," he said.

An estimated 500,000 foreign visitors are expected to cram Beijing and billions more will visit China through television coverage.

For the hosts, it's a chance to showcase a nation that's becoming a dominant economy and a political player.

With its long view of history, China sees itself returning to an accustomed role as a world power. The nation also has been investing heavily in athletics -- a golden haul of medals, after all, is a matter of national pride.

China has become an international athletics powerhouse.

Wang promised foreign reporters who will flock to China will be free to roam the country to cover not just sports but social problems created by the nation's vast wealth gap and failings of the central government to alleviate corruption and rural poverty.

He also promised a well-mannered host city -- as he put it a "sound social atmosphere" that visitors sometimes have found lacking in years past.

He cited public education campaigns on standing in line, and not spitting or littering.

There's also a campaign to educate Chinese about how to watch sports they may not know well. Do not clap or yell, Wang pointed out, when someone is about to shoot a rifle.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press