Aug 16 Olympics leaves positive legacies for some groups

Aug. 16, 2008, 3:15 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Wang Yanan walked across southern China this summer, staying in rundown hotels and speaking out in village squares about her passion - saving the environment.

Galvanized by China's promise of a "Green Olympics," the 23-year-old student and thousands of other university students joined the Green Long March. It covered 26 provinces and took its name from the famous trek of Mao Zedong's Communist forces during China's civil war in the 1930s.

Large non-state-sponsored activities like hers are rare in China. But the games have given her and others in China an opportunity to publicly raise awareness and push the government to change its policies, whether it is for the environment or the rights of the disabled.

Public involvement on a variety of issues is on the rise here, with the government in a few cases viewing activist groups as partners rather than groups that need to be controlled.

But critics say the government's desire for control means there are limits to how much it will work with activists.

"It is very difficult to say at this point whether, after the Olympics, Chinese society will become more open," said Guobin Yang, an associate professor at Barnard College and Columbia University in New York.

"There is always back and forth struggles between the authorities and the grass roots and citizens," said Yang, who studies social movements in China. "There's still a lot of tension, and the grass roots need to push their work forward.

"It's never easy."

By many measures, the Olympics have not brought about hoped-for changes in China, from its policies on human rights and Tibet to its support for outcast governments such as those in Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Myanmar.

Wang, whose native Shanxi province is dotted with small coal mines, knows it will take more than marches to clean the environment. But she credits the Olympics with an important first step: raising awareness.

"It has played a great role. Whether it's about banning disposable chopsticks or sorting trash, everyone at the mention of the Olympics said they should do a better job," she said.

The environment has been a focus at the Olympics since the early 1990s, and Beijing promised a host of ambitious environmental programs when it bid in 2001 to host the Summer Games.

The Olympics helped Future Generations, a U.S. group, win government permission to hold the Green Long March, said Frances Freemont-Smith, executive director of the organization's China branch.

The government is normally wary of such non-state-sponsored mass events, fearing they could become a cauldron for anti-government activity. Future Generations also partnered with the Beijing Forestry University.

Without the Olympics, Wang said that local governments would not have been so cooperative with her group on the Green Long March as it carried out surveys and organized games to promote recycling.

Wang, a masters student at Beijing's Forestry University, said the government would have gradually tried to balance environmental protection with economic development.

"But since the Olympics is already here, the government had no choice but to move the agenda ahead," she said.

The Olympics provided China's environmental groups with their best chance to interact with the government since they first started appearing in 1994, said Wang Yongcheng, the founder of Green Earth Volunteers.

Representatives from two Beijing-based groups - Friends of Nature and Global Village of Beijing - were appointed as environmental consultants by the Beijing Olympics organizing committee.

But international environmental group Greenpeace said in a recent report that while the outreach brought about by the Olympics was a good first step, China "still has a long ways to go in engaging with civil society as true partners."

Besides environmentalists, the Olympics have also cheered advocates in for the disabled. The Paralympics, a competition for athletes with disabilities, is also held in Beijing and will begin Sept. 6.

The event helped build support for an amendment in July that strengthens China's law protecting its 81 million disabled people, said Lu Shiming, the deputy director of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, a government-appointed group. The amendment, among other mandates, makes sure local governments provide stable funding to help them.

For Xie Yan, a broad-shouldered man who walks with crutches after developing bone cancer in 2001, the Paralympics provided an opportunity for his nongovernment organization to air a radio show about the lives of the disabled on more than 100 stations.

"I feel that for the disabled in China it cannot be called discrimination but unequal opportunities. But, for now, it is improving, and the pace will pick up because of the Paralympics, especially in job employment," he said.

Wu Runling, who runs the Beijing Huitianyu Information Consulting Center, a nongovernment group that works with the disabled, said the Paralympics have helped. Attitudes are changing, more people are volunteering to help and barrier-free facilities are being built.

"But we are concerned whether it's going to last," he said. "We hope it is not just a flash in the pan."

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