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Beijing – Now What Happens?

A capital question arises: now what happens?

Josephine Ma and Shi Jiangtao – SCMP – Updated on Aug 25, 2008

There is little doubt that the Olympic Games have transformed Beijing with glittering new rail links and magnificent venues, but time will tell what intangible legacies will remain.

Wang Yongchen, of Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, said the Games would help China conform to international practices, on which the country has set its eyes since its opening-up three decades ago.

“The world is watching,” she said. “It is at least a good opportunity for government officials and the public to know what exactly international standards and practices is supposed to mean.”

Despite China’s rapid incorporation into the global economy and an ever-increasing role worldwide, it has rarely, if ever, been exposed to so much intense scrutiny at the international level.

“Beijing has talked a lot about catching up with the best international practices and building a modern metropolis, but we seldom have the chance to listen to how the world sees us and what other people think of us,” Ms Wang said.

International monitoring and criticism will exert pressure on China and push it to adopt global standards, she and other analysts agreed.

“We had hoped to clean up the environment, but it is because of the enormous pressure to live up to promises for a green Olympics that the government has done so much to cut pollution,” Ms Wang said.

China had shut down 200 polluting factories and treated 90 per cent of Beijing city’s waste water, and introduced vehicle emission standards to 4,000 buses, the UN said.

“All these efforts will have a lasting impact because they have changed lives,” said Khalid Malik, the UN resident co-ordinator in China. “What we now want to make sure of is that the change will not go away and will be mirrored throughout China.”

Many Beijing residents also expressed doubt over whether the clear skies, clean air and improved traffic of the past weeks can last.

Local resident Li Wei, a 30-year-old civil servant, was amazed at the clear skies and less congested roads in Beijing. “It would be the best legacy of the Games for the city if they could continue, but we know it’s not really possible as those bans on private cars, building sites and polluting factories will have to be lifted as soon as the Games are over.”

Ms Wang said the UN Environmental Programme remained cautious about the Games’ long-term impact, saying an assessment would not be available for six months. “Lasting international attention will be essential to ensure a lasting legacy.”

However, many people regretted that officials had pinned their hopes of clearing Beijing’s smog-plagued air and notorious gridlocked roads on a flurry of last-minute contingency measures.

“It should have been a great opportunity to tackle problems at their roots, but the government is apparently more interested in staging a perfect show just for the Games,” said Zhang Yang, a teacher.

Observers say the Games has yet again showed Beijing’s ability to erect world-class venues and infrastructure with seemingly unbridled spending, but the challenges it faces in democracy and urban management were also laid bare.

Beijing opened three new subway lines and the Airport Express ahead of the Games, extending the total length of track from 142km to 200km and winning the praise of millions of commuters. Despite the brand new Hong Kong-style infrastructure, the lack of signs has confused travellers.

“Beijing … still has a long way to go to fill the gap between reality and people’s expectations,” said Mr Li.

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