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Beijing - going for gold

Beijing Olympic rally
A pro-Olympic rally outside a Beijing shopping center on the weekend  

BEIJING, China -- In the fall of 1993, when Beijing lost its bid for the 2000 Olympics to Sydney, disappointment around the city was palpable.

Some residents acknowledged that Sydney's bid might have been better than Beijing's. But many others who spoke to CNN at the time blamed international politics. The real reason, they said, was that some people in the West "want to hold China back" or "don't want to see China develop."

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CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon reports on what Beijing is doing to attract the 2008 Olympics

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Now, with the slogan "New Beijing, Great Olympics," the city is gearing up again. Members of the International Olympic Committee were expected to begin arriving early this week before their official inspection tour begins on Wednesday.

Over the weekend, work crews toiled late into the evening putting fresh paint on road dividers, putting up flags, setting out flowerpots, and trimming hedges.

A matter of politics

"We want to separate politics from the Olympics," says Beijing's vice mayor Liu Jingmin. But like it or not, politics -- and the nature of China's political system -- have once again become a factor in Beijing's bid for the 2008 games.

Beijing Olympic rally
Chinese school children perform during a rally in support of Beijing's Olympic bid  

The frequent sight of Falun Gong protestors being roughed up by police in Tiananmen Square, then thrown into vans and hauled off to detention, is an unpleasant image clouding the freshly painted, cheerful face Beijing hopes to show the world this week.

Concerned that the demonstrations are marring its image, the Chinese government has intensified its campaign to wipe out Falun Gong. On February16, the burning suicide by a 25-year old man who state media claim was a Falun Gong follower breathed new life into the government's anti-Falun Gong campaign.

Authorities argue that it is Falun Gong -- not the government -- that threatens the Chinese people's human rights by driving followers to extremism and suicide. This is the argument China's leaders have recently made to visiting world leaders, and its expected to be the argument they'll make to the IOC, if the subject comes up.

A closed debate

According to a Gallup poll taken last November, 94.9 percent of Beijing residents do support the city's Olympic bid. But what about the other 5.1 percent? These people cannot publish or broadcast their reasons inside China or openly debate the merits of the bid. But for many of them, politics and human rights appear to be an issue.

Relatives of two jailed Chinese dissidents have recently released an open letter to the International Olympic Committee, demanding a meetings with committee members, in order to "make your evaluation of Beijing more complete", they said.

They asked the IOC to raise the cases of their relatives, democracy activists Fang Jue and Jiang Qisheng, and to demand that they be treated in accordance with the Chinese constitution and international human rights norms.

Opposition to the bid

He Depu, the Beijing-based organizer for the dissident China Democracy Party, also opposes Beijing's Olympic bid. "My main reason for opposing the bid is because I think that the spirit of the Olympics includes peace and democracy," says He.

Many of his fellow party members are now in jail, and he himself is under close surveillance. "These factors cannot be ignored, especially since China has terrible human rights conditions. Political prisoners receive very bad treatment in jail."

Others worry that preparations for the Olympics may steamroller over other social priorities, or give local officials the prerogative to disregard residents rights and interests if they conflict with Olympic construction plans. Take Song Zaimin, who until recently owned a restaurant in a Beijing suburb.

His family lived in the back of the restaurant, in a small building rented from the local government. One day, several months before his lease was up, he was told that the building would be flattened to make way for new construction -- as part of his township's efforts to spruce up for the Olympic bid.

Now the restaurant is a pile of rubble. Workers put his belongings in a shed behind the construction site. His attempts to sue the local government got nowhere, and he was not compensated for the loss of his business or home.

"Holding the Olympics will directly benefit real estate contractors with special connections," says Song. He himself has no money to set up a new restaurant somewhere else, and the rent he had already paid was not returned. "How can I support Beijing's Olympic bid when I'm not sure how I'm going to feed my children now?" Song asks.

Beijing residents "will benefit"

Others, however, see the Olympic bid as an opportunity to get the government to pay more attention to citizens' groups. For the first time ever, the Beijing government has appointed members of non-governmental environmental activist groups to sit on a board in charge of the city's environmental cleanup plans.

"We take the Olympic games as a kind of, you might say, pretext," says Liang Congjie, head of an environmental group, Friends of Nature.

"Beijing inhabitants will benefit if we have a bigger public transportation system, a waste water treatment system, a better garbage collecting system, and so on," says Liang.

"Only under these conditions do I support the Olympic bid." With the government's muscle behind him, his group is spearheading citywide efforts to enforce energy and water conservation.

As many observers point out, Beijing's Olympic bid is more about what Beijing - and China - will be like in 2008. Will it be more environmentally responsible, more cosmopolitan, and more democratic? And will hosting the Olympic games help or hinder that progress? There's only one way to find out. It will be up to the International Olympic Committee to decide whether the gamble is worth taking.



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