Beijing perspective: Mary-Anne Toy

MARY-ANNE TOY is the China correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. Here is her assessment of the impact the Olympics have had on Beijing

China has been undergoing enormous change for the past 30 years, increasingly becoming more open, most obviously economically but also in personal freedoms.

After the turmoil of various Chinese Communist Party’s disastrous policies and purges – the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightest movement and the decade-long Cultural Revolution – politics and the suppression of human rights is far less than it was.

But most commentators would accept that the Olympics has seen an increase, rather than a decrease, in human rights violations in the name of the Beijing Games. The Olympic protest parks, where not one of 77 applications to protest was granted, and at least six documented cases of applicants being harassed, detained or otherwise dissuaded from continuing their applications are glaring examples.

The sentencing of two Beijing grannies to a year of “re-education through labour” because they were “serial protesters” and had applied to protest in the protest parks over the confiscation and demolition of their homes in 2001 for the Olympics, is unfathomable. It was done in the second week of the Olympics, although as a sign of the more progressive times, the two old ladies are being allowed to serve their sentence in their temporary housing, rather than the much harsher surroundings of one of China’s notorious labour camps.

Another sign of the times is that there were even citizens willing to publicly apply to protest. And the Beijing grannies remain unbowed and defiant. China is not black and white, there are many signs of improvement: citizens can travel more or less freely within the country and overseas, unheard of privileges even a decade ago.

But do not be fooled. Political dissent – which is interpreted widely – remains punishable by harassment, jailing and other invidious payback such as preventing a person’s children from attending university or enrolling at school.

Beijing was transformed for the Olympics, an overdue infrastructure overhaul that will position the capital to take its rightful place as the head of a great power. Hopefully the greening of Beijing will continue. Hopefully the many green pilot projects and technologies pioneered in the main Olympic venues will be repeated across the country. Environmental consciousness will be one of the most important legacies of the Games for China.

China’s state sports system is likely to be seen as hugely successful and with the inevitable increase in commercial sponsorship,
is probably set to continue. The other enduring legacy of the Olympics will hopefully also be an increase in general fitness for the public and their facilities. China’s parks which contain outdoor exercise equipment, simplified, mechanical rowing and stepping machines and similar, are hugely popular with citizens including the elderly. Coupled with a greater awareness of the health dangers of unbridled smoking, this would help contain China’s burgeoning health bill.

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