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Beijing Gets Makeover for Olympics

With less than a month to go before the Olympics open, preparations in China continue. So do concerns about pollution, human rights and press freedom. VOA's Brian Padden reports.

Even the Great Wall of China is getting a makeover for the Olympics. Stretched along over 13 thousand meters of the wall is long piece of art known as the "Olympic Dragon" featuring national and regional flags of the 205 countries participating in the Olympics.

With the start of the Beijing Olympics less than a month away, final preparations are well under way. The main stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, and the other 31 venues have been ready for months.

The Main Press Center was recently opened to receive more than 20,000 journalists from around the world. International Olympic Committee official Hein Verbruggen toured the sight.

"This magnificent building, along with the International Broadcast Center, is perhaps one of the most important venues of the games because it is from here that the stories of Beijing 2008 will be told," Verbruggen said.

The City of Beijing is also undergoing a number of improvements for the games. The government spent $57 million to renovate more than 5,000 public restrooms.

And thousands of Olympic volunteers are learning both English and how to interact with foreigners.

Still, questions remain about whether the Olympics will improve China's image or confirm its critics' allegations. Chinese officials have taken action aimed at dissipating Beijing's air pollution before the games, after spending more than $15 billion on anti pollution measures including relocating factories and limiting car traffic in the city during the games.

Press freedom issues were called into question when television networks, which paid billions of dollars for live broadcast rights, learned that security officials imposed limits on when they can broadcast from Tiananmen square.

Human rights groups have used the media spotlight on the Olympics to bring attention to China's human rights abuses. Amnesty International recently delivered nearly 120,000 petitions to the Chinese Embassy in Paris calling for the release of political prisoners. It says an estimated half a million people are currently being detained in China without charge or trial.

Stephan Oberreit, the director of Amnesty International in France said the Chinese government needed to show.

"Some strong signs regarding their promises of respecting human rights given that they have Olympic Games this years in China," Oberreit said.

So far, China has avoided any major diplomatic embarrassments. After hinting that he may boycott the opening ceremonies to protest China's crackdown on Tibet, French President Nicolas Sarkozy of France says he will now attend.

U.S. President George Bush is also planning to attend and says he communicates his concerns about human rights directly to China's President Hu Jintao.

"The President and I have constantly had discussions about human rights and political freedom, he knows my position. And as I told our people, Mr. President, I don't need the Olympics to talk candidly with somebody that I've got good relations with," Mr. Bush said.

Despite its hope to use the Olympics to introduce modern China to the world, there is still concern that politics could ruin the party.