by Xinhua writer Quan Xiaoshu, Zhu Yifan
BEIJING, Aug. 27 (Xinhua) -- An important post-Olympics debate is taking place on China's Internet forums.
It has nothing to do with the record gold medal haul or the successful organization of the 2008 Games, but stems from the preparations taken to ensure the nation's capital would present its best face to the world.
Faced with one of the world's serious air pollution problems, the municipal government took half the city's cars off the roads with an alternating odd-even license plate system from July 20.
The smog was already a subject of intense international focus with some foreign athletes and delegations openly voicing concerns for their health.
When the Games opened on Aug. 8, a grey haze still hung over the city and Chinese officials and weather experts argued it was humidity or "fog" -- not smog -- despite claims to the contrary.
But in the following days it gradually cleared and Beijing meteorological chiefs boasted the best summer weather in 10 years.
Not that they needed the scientific data and statistics to prove it -- Beijing residents, long used to irritated throats and warnings to stay indoors on bad air days, quickly realized the improvement themselves.
Now the debate is spreading on-line: whether the motoring restrictions should be continued or not.
An online survey on portal site www.news.cn shows 56.62 percent of the over 10,000 interviewees support a permanent motoring restriction methods while 40.62 percent disagree.
Many people who had expressed annoyance over giving up their cars for blue skies are intensely scared of returning to days of choking smog and rush-hour congestion when the restrictions end after the Paralympics.
The Beijing traffic authorities have admitted receiving many submissions from car owners, saying they were comfortable with the odd-even number system and hoping it would last.
For long it was argued that economic development was essential to improving the lives of the Chinese people: why should they not have the cars and modern conveniences that are the trappings of the developed world?
But the debate over motoring restrictions could point the way to the lasting legacy of the Olympics: meaningful public discussion on what sort of development the Chinese want.
Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, predicted that China would feel greater pressure after the Olympics as the people questioned whether the air quality and traffic will slide back to the pre-Olympic state.
"After the Olympics, more attention would be paid to changes inChina...because China has become a power in the eyes of the West. They would monitor or supervise the development of this important country," said Zheng.
He suggested China treat them with a calm and confident heart, because criticism is beneficial to China and makes it do better.
While the Olympics infrastructure has pointed the way, the clean air has shown clear evidence of a better way forward and the need for public participation to achieve a better end result.
Alert to the drastic environmental price of its economic progress, China has found central policies of pursuing sustainable development obstructed by local governments, which still seek GDP growth at all costs.
Most of the capital invested in the Games was spent on infrastructure, which has helped to shape and plant a more important environmental awareness among the public.
Three subway lines and a 28-kilometer light rail linking the downtown with the airport extended the city's total length of track to 200 kilometers, accompanied by a new Beijing-Tianjin intercity express railway and new bus lines. The new Terminal 3 has more than doubled the capacity of the Beijing Capital International Airport.
The improvement in public transport has helped millions of residents in their daily commute, and the city's traffic authorities aim to boost the proportion of people relying on public transport from 35 to 45 percent.
The Olympics has also left Beijing with a series of spectacul arsports venues.
IOC president Jacques Rogge listed these venues as an important sporting legacy for the country, but these structures, mostly combinations of imaginative architectural designs, advanced building technologies and comprehensive energy-saving systems, could have a deeper influence.
The National Stadium, or "Bird's Nest", is regarded as a template for water conservation, with 70 percent of its water consumption coming from recycled water, and the neighboring Water Cube also boasts sophisticated water recycling and solar energy technologies.
Experts view these energy efficient and sustainable buildings as models for a nation now searching for a road to sustainable development -- and, more importantly, as the focal point for a wider public discussion on the course of China's development.
The public discussion and concern over air quality is not limited to a local or environmental issue, but rather a question of development pattern, said Zheng.
In the past, China put much weight on economic development, and sacrificed rights in other areas. The road of sustainable development reflected a comeback of public awareness that demands attention to the sacrificed interests.
It would be the same in many other areas. Of course, nobody can grow mature overnight, and the Chinese shall learn more and go through more tests. But the Olympics is a good start.