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Published: Wednesday, 8/15/2007

China's clean-up

WITH the Beijing Olympics now just one year out, some of the international strains that were part of the original hesitation in 2001 about awarding China the games are coming to the fore.

It was perfectly appropriate to give China the 2008 Summer Olympics in light of its rapid ascendance to the world stage in recent years, particularly in economic terms. In purely political terms, setting a date for broad media coverage of not only the games but also the country poses China a challenge to clean up its act in a number of areas.

Among them are some of the more difficult domestic issues before China, such as environmental pollution, civil liberties that include press freedom, fair treatment of religious groups like Falun Gong, and the rights and aspirations of minorities such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs.

One subject of great interest to American consumers of Chinese imports is the purity of products. Will Olympic athletes be able to eat Chinese food and use Chinese medications, for example, with peace of mind, given recent scandals that have emerged over Chinese exports to the United States?

Another topic is Beijing's reputation as one of the world's most polluted cities. Olympic competitors laboring to breath as Chinese factories belch forth noxious smoke is not an attractive image.

As far as freedom of the press, China has a bad reputation for dealing with both its own and foreign media. It needs to release any journalists it has locked up and get used to the fact that international reporters in China to cover the games will also want to talk to Chinese political critics.

World attention to the state of freedom of religious groups in China could also be a problem. Falun Gong is the most prominent example, while a semi-free Catholic church and Tibetan Buddhists are others.

The continuing aspirations of Tibetans for independence remain in the mind of the world 56 years after China conquered an independent Tibet and drove its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile in 1959. The state of the Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Western China is also of concern.

None of these are impossible issues to tackle for a Beijing government sincerely interested in presenting the best face of China to the world next summer.

For those inside the Chinese leadership, the 2008 Olympics can serve as credible cover for approaching the problems head on, a year before everyone comes to town. That was, after all, part of the deal in giving them the games.



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