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Beijing Olympics official cites pollution concerns

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Air quality remains a major concern
ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a top official organizing
China's first Games said Wednesday.

Factories belching pollution as they fuel breakneck economic
growth and dust blowing from thousands of local work sites and
western deserts frequently brown the skies over China's capital.

While pollution controls are having an effect -- Beijing
experienced 241 "good air quality days" last year, up from 100 in
1998 -- there's room for progress, said Wang Wei, secretary general
of the Games' organizing committee.

"We want to make sure the athletes have the best air quality,"
Wang, who is visiting the United States for four days, told a
conference sponsored by Asia Society Southern California.

In a subsequent interview, Wang dismissed as "an old topic"
international concerns about another area where China has an image
problem -- human rights.

Critics of China's authoritarian government hope to swing the
Olympic spotlight to issues where Beijing promised reforms before
it won these Games in 2001. Wang told reporters then that he
thought the Games could "promote" human rights.

"I think that human rights conditions keep improving in
China," Wang told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "And I think
this is going to be a good thing for the general social progress
including human rights, that's no problem."

A report last month from Amnesty International echoed the
refrain that China is limiting freedom of political dissidents,
human rights activists and followers of the Falun Gong faith. The
Olympics, Amnesty concluded, are actually prompting a crackdown,
including sweeps of petty criminals and vagrants considered a
potential blemish on the Games' happy face.

The Games, which begin Aug. 8, 2008, represent a coming out
party for a nation that has turned decades of stagnation into a
staggering resurgence.

Though Wang tried to tamp down expectations, he called the Games
a "golden opportunity for us to showcase the new China."

"The world does not really know as much about China as we
wish," he said.

An estimated 500,000 foreign visitors are expected to cram
Beijing and billions more will visit China through television
coverage.

For the hosts, it's a chance to showcase a nation that's
becoming a dominant economy and a political player.

With its long view of history, China sees itself returning to an
accustomed role as a world power. The nation also has been
investing heavily in athletics -- a golden haul of medals, after
all, is a matter of national pride.

China has become an international athletics powerhouse.

Wang promised foreign reporters who will flock to China will be
free to roam the country to cover not just sports but social
problems created by the nation's vast wealth gap and failings of
the central government to alleviate corruption and rural poverty.

He also promised a well-mannered host city -- as he put it a
"sound social atmosphere" that visitors sometimes have found
lacking in years past.

He cited public education campaigns on standing in line, and not
spitting or littering.

There's also a campaign to educate Chinese about how to watch
sports they may not know well. Do not clap or yell, Wang pointed
out, when someone is about to shoot a rifle.