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Blue-Sky Thinking Could Be The Games’ Best Legacy

Updated on Aug 03, 2008 – SCMP

President Hu Jintao broke new ground when he met representatives of foreign news organisations on Friday. It was his first press conference of this kind in Beijing in nearly six years as top leader. Even when travelling abroad he has not had such exposure. The move was a timely one, coming just a week before the opening of the Olympic Games. Mr Hu’s comments generated wider coverage than if they had been conveyed through the state media. And what he had to say about China’s economic strategy prompted a positive reaction from stock markets on both sides of the border.

The press conference came at a time when China has been on the receiving end of much negative publicity. Concerns over censorship and pollution during the Games, the government’s Tibet policy and the mainland’s human rights record have threatened to spoil the party. Senior Olympic and government officials have had their hands full with damage control. It was the right time for Mr Hu to come out and say where China stands.

It was important to offer reassurance to the international community that Beijing remains committed to legal, administrative and political reforms that will give people more rights. Indeed, he suggested that the 30th anniversary of China’s opening up would be the occasion for unveiling more policy initiatives. That is something the outside world has been wondering about as the anniversary draws near. It remains to be seen how far such new measures will go, especially those concerning democracy and the rule of law. But the pledge to push ahead with reforms is welcome.

Mr Hu also tackled concerns about Beijing’s short-term economic strategy. He pledged efforts to maintain fast, sustainable growth after the Games despite the unprecedented challenges China is facing.

Worries remain about the media freedom promised during the Olympics, although the authorities have restored access to some sensitive websites that were blocked in the Olympic press centre. Mr Hu did little to ease them. He merely urged journalists to abide by mainland laws and regulations and not to politicise the Games. Beijing has eased restrictions on journalists, but there have been complaints that authorities are selective in implementing the rules.

One significant message is to be found in Mr Hu’s remarks about the legacy of the Olympics. While China would inherit sports venues and infrastructure, it would also treasure more highly what he called the spiritual legacies. Environmental protection and the concept of a green Olympics were among those that would be good for the future development of the nation and efforts to create a better life for the Chinese people.

Despite unprecedented measures, including industry shutdowns and traffic restrictions, doubts remain about whether Beijing will, during the Games, be able to shrug off the cloud of smog which often envelops the city. The environment of the Games is now down to the elements, such as wind direction.

If one enduring positive emerges from the Olympics, it will be increased awareness across the nation of the importance of environmental protection. Given the largely ineffectual efforts China has made to contain pollution, significant progress in protecting and restoring the environment would on its own be a priceless legacy. As Mr Hu spoke, Beijing breathed easier under clearly visible white cloud and blue sky, thanks to some cleansing weather conditions. It is to be hoped that is a good omen for the Games and for their legacy.

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