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Experts Debate Legacy of Beijing Olympics

The Olympic Games are coming to a close in Beijing, with hundreds of medals awarded and dozens of world records broken. While sports experts tally the statistics, political analysts are studying the legacy of the Games for China and its people. VOA's Scott Bobb spoke to some of them and filed this report from Beijing.

The opening ceremonies dazzled, as did the innovative stadium designs and a new underground train.

Praise was high for the Chinese government, which spent an estimated $45 billion preparing for these Olympic Games.

Major achievement

The head of the United Nations in China, Khalid Malik, says hosting the Games was a major achievement for the leaders of a developing nation like China.

"They managed to focus their attention on big picture items," he said. "The whole of Beijing infrastructure has been upgraded by [from] these bus routes, to underground [train] links, to just how the city looks. I think all these are enduring legacies for future."

Shi Yin Hong, American studies director at People's University in Beijing, says the heritage of the Beijing Olympics will be the draconian anti-pollution measures that brought clearer skies and the best air quality in 10 years.

He says the greatest heritage of the Olympics will be the heightened awareness by people and the government of the importance to society of a cleaner sky and easier transportation.

Dashing hopes

For others, hopes that the Games would open up Chinese society went unfulfilled.

Foreign journalists were allowed to report more freely, but still faced restrictions on certain subjects. Some Internet sites remained blocked, despite a pledge by authorities to allow full and free access.

The government designated special protest areas during the Olympics, but none of the 77 requests to demonstrate were approved, and some of the people who applied reportedly were detained.

Human rights activists say the Games actually increased repression against political dissidents, some ethnic groups and some religious organizations. Authorities also destroyed some people's homes and expelled migrant workers, beggars and the homeless from Beijing in preparation for the Games.

Power, prestige showcase

The author of a book on the Olympics, David Wallechensky, says he never expected the Olympics to change China.

"It's a one-party communist dictatorship. In addition, their economy doesn't need any help," he said. "They don't need to show off to the world. They don't have to open up to the world [economically]. They're already there. And, so, the idea that the Olympics was going to be some coming out party for China, I just never bought [accepted] that argument."

He says the Chinese government used the Olympics to promote its power and prestige.

The program director for the U.S.-based Asia Society, Jaime Metzl, says China's one-party government used the Games to bolster its legitimacy.

"The legitimacy of the government comes from its being able to deliver certain things, whether it's delivering economic growth or it's delivering the symbol of these Olympics that China can do something, not only at the world level, but above the world level," he said.

The head of Asia Studies at Washington's Georgetown University, Victor Cha, says the Chinese leadership has no long-term interest in allowing rapid and complete liberalization. But, he says, pressure to do so will continue, even after the Olympic torch is extinguished.

"What the Olympics do is, it forces the leadership to make small steps that are very uncharacteristic for the leadership," said Cha. "And these incremental steps have an aggregate [cumulative] effect in the end."

Olympics legacy

U.N. official Khalid Malik says the Olympics will leave a mark.

"The biggest legacy is the legacy of reducing poverty, of improving the lives of people, of all Chinese being able to choose the place they can live in, the work space they can occupy," he said. "I think, the Olympics were a means to furthering that end and to do it bigger and better."

Metzl of the Asia Society says it will be years before the full effect of the Chinese Olympics is understood.

"China will not be the same place after the Olympics," he said. "It is impossible to understate what it's going to mean to the Chinese people to win the gold medal count, especially given 150 years of feelings of humiliation and even inferiority."

Experts say, as a result, China in the future will show more self-assurance on the world stage, whether in sports, commerce or international politics.