Olympic Clock Is Running in China, One Year Out

Chinese and Olympic officials are set to mark a year-long countdown to the Beijing Olympic Games, which begins on 08/08/08. China wants to spotlight its international prominence, but concerns remain about its pollution, traffic, and food safety.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Chinese officials and Olympic officials are in Beijing to watch the countdown clock marked exactly one year to go before the Beijing Olympic Games. The games are going to start on the eights - at 08:08 on 08/08/08. That's the date and time.

China wants to spotlight its return to prominence on the world's stage by making these the best games ever. But one year before that exact moment, concerns remain about Beijing's pollution, and traffic, and food safety. And this week has been marked by protests and criticism as human rights groups pressured China to improve civil liberties before the games, too.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: Next year's games will be the first Olympics to be held in the world's most populous nation. And they're expected to draw the largest number of participants and spectators ever.

International Olympics Committee President Jacques Rogge said yesterday that Beijing's preparations for the games were impressive. He was even optimistic that there was still time to clean up the smog blanketing the capital.

Mr. JACQUES ROGGE (President, International Olympic Committee): We should remember that this is not the first time that games have had to deal with challenges and disputes. Remember Los Angeles, Seoul and Atlanta, where air quality issues were successfully addressed at the games' time.

KUHN: This week, officials announced plans to monitor food supplies to the games and clear special lanes for Olympic traffic. Billions of dollars worth of new sporting venues and infrastructure building they say are on schedule.

Vice President of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee, Jiang Xiaoyu, acknowledged that the city was preparing for some intense scrutiny from the media.

Mr. JIANG XIAOYU (Vice President, Olympic Games Organizing Committee, Beijing): (Through translator) We welcome the international media to report objectively and fairly on our preparations, and to offer constructive criticism of our shortcomings. But we oppose politicizing the games, as that is not in keeping with the Olympic spirit.

KUHN: When China won its bid in 2001 to host the Olympic Games, it pledged to bring its press freedoms up to international standards.

Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger is chairman of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. At a press briefing here yesterday, he urged the IOC to hold China to its commitment.

Mr. PAUL STEIGER (Chairman, Committee to Protect Journalists): With one year left before the games begin, China has fallen far short of carrying out its promise to improve press freedom. China has taken some very laudable steps to ease curbs on foreign journalists, and we're happy for that, but it has failed to do the same for its own Chinese journalists here in China.

KUHN: CPJ called on China to release the 29 Chinese journalists currently in prison. On Monday, police detained about a dozen foreign journalists covering a demonstration by the group Reporters Without Borders. Police also arrested six foreign demonstrators who rappelled off the Great Wall with signs calling for independence for Tibet.

At a popular cafe, Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, is updating her blog. She says that underneath Beijing's veil of normality lies some tight security.

Ms. LHADON TETHONG (Executive Director, Students for a Free Tibet): We've been welcomed with many, many minders and security agents following us everywhere. We haven't been able to move around and do what we plan to do.

KUHN: She's been trying to get an audience with IOC director Jacques Rogge, but with no luck so far. Her message to the IOC is this.

Ms. TETHONG: Stop China's political use of the Olympics to legitimize their occupation of Tibet. It's so obvious Tibet is the centerpiece of their sophisticated public relations strategy. And at the same time, to say, you know, they have an obligation and a moral responsibility to say something.

KUHN: The IOC insists that the Olympic Games can be a force for positive change in China. But it cautions that it doesn't have the mandate or the ability to change China's political institutions.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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Beijing Marks One Year Until Olympic Games Begin

Volunteers wave Olympic and Chinese flags/Getty. i i

Volunteers wave Olympic and Chinese flags as China kicked off the final year countdown to the Beijing Olympics. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Volunteers wave Olympic and Chinese flags/Getty.

Volunteers wave Olympic and Chinese flags as China kicked off the final year countdown to the Beijing Olympics.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
A total of 999 students from across the country play Chinese traditional musical instruments. i i

A total of 999 students from across the country play Chinese traditional musical instruments on the Great Wall to mark the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Guang Niu/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Guang Niu/AFP/Getty Images
A total of 999 students from across the country play Chinese traditional musical instruments.

A total of 999 students from across the country play Chinese traditional musical instruments on the Great Wall to mark the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Guang Niu/AFP/Getty Images
The portrait on Mao on Tiananmen Gate looks over people waving Olympic and Chinese flags/Getty. i i

The portrait on Mao on Tiananmen Gate looks over people waving Olympic and Chinese flags as China kicked off the final year countdown to the Beijing Olympics with a spectacular ceremony on a dazzlingly lit Tiananmen Square on Wednesday. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
The portrait on Mao on Tiananmen Gate looks over people waving Olympic and Chinese flags/Getty.

The portrait on Mao on Tiananmen Gate looks over people waving Olympic and Chinese flags as China kicked off the final year countdown to the Beijing Olympics with a spectacular ceremony on a dazzlingly lit Tiananmen Square on Wednesday.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Olympic and Chinese officials gathered in Beijing Wednesday night to watch the countdown clock mark one year to go before the Beijing Olympic Games. The game will start at 8:08 on 08/08/08.

China is hoping to spotlight its return to prominence on the world stage by making the games the best ever. While work on the infrastructure and Olympic buildings is coming along, concerns linger over Beijing's pollution, traffic and food safety. Just this week, human right groups have staged protests to pressure China to improve civil liberties before the games.

The 2008 games will be the first Olympics to be held in the world's most populous nation. They are expected to draw the largest number of participants and spectators ever recorded.

International Olympics Committee President Jacques Rogge said Tuesday that Beijing's preparations for the games were impressive. He was even optimistic that there was still time to clean up the smog blanketing the capital.

"We should remember this is not the first time that games have had to deal with challenges in this field," Rogge said. "Remember Los Angeles, Seoul and Atlanta where air quality issues were successfully addressed at games time."

Chinese officials announced the city will reserve special lanes on their roadways for Olympic traffic. The country is putting billions of dollars toward new sporting venues and infrastructure developments, which officials say are on schedule.

Officials announced plans to monitor food shipments to the games. The U.S. has halted the import of several food products because of concerns they could contain harmful toxins.

Vice president of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee Jiang Xiaoyu acknowledged that the city's was preparing for some intense scrutiny from the media.

"We welcome the international media to report objectively and fairly on our preparations, and to offer constructive criticism of our shortcomings," Jiang said. "But we oppose politicizing the games, as that is not in keeping with the Olympic spirit."

The Olympic committee has said the games can be a force for positive change in China, but that it does not have the ability to change China's political institutions.

When China won its bid in 2001 to host the Olympic Games, it pledged to bring its press freedoms up to international standards. Journalists have urged the Olympic committee to hold China to that commitment.

"With one year left before the games begin, China has fallen far short of carrying out its promise to improve press freedom," said Paul Steiger, a Wall Street Journal editor and Chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "China has taken some very laudable steps to ease curbs on foreign journalists, and we're happy for that, but it has failed to do the same for its own journalists here in China."

Steiger also called on China to release the 29 Chinese journalists currently in prison.

On Monday, police detained about a dozen foreign journalists covering a demonstration by the group Reporters Without Borders. Police also arrested six foreign demonstrators who rappelled off the Great Wall with signs calling for independence for Tibet.

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