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Olympic Clock Is Running in China, One Year Out


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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