Hypocrisy of Olympian proportions

For years Western observers slammed China's 'red authoritarianism'. Yet today they positively cheer on its eco-authoritarianism.

Nathalie Rothschild

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A country in the East has taken the extraordinary step of banning hundreds of thousands of car drivers from the streets. Anyone caught driving a car with a licence plate that ends with an odd number on a day when only even numbers are allowed, or vice versa, faces a tough fine and the prospect of being forced to return home. Many motorists are dismayed. ‘We want to drive’, said one.

And yet this eastern country has not been condemned by Western governments or commentators who normally revel in exposing authoritarianism ‘over there’. Instead it has been congratulated, and is probably even envied. For this is ‘eco-friendly authoritarianism’, and the West supports that; in fact, it invented it.

The ban was enforced in Beijing, China. Why have the Chinese authorities taken such stiff action against motorists? Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has threatened to postpone some of next year’s Olympic competitions, including the 174-km cycling road race, unless the city of Beijing tackles its pollution levels and clears its smog. In an attempt to meet the IOC’s demands, Beijing brought in a four-day trial of traffic limitations, which began on Friday and ends today. Car owners whose licence plates do not match the numbers allowed on the road have had to organise car pooling, take communal transport or simply miss a day of work.

Today, smog still enshrouds the city, but Beijing’s Environmental Protection monitoring centre claimed the car restrictions have had an obvious positive effect on air quality. Despite China’s heavy-handed traffic control measures, international observers were not satisfied. Some athletes and coaches are ‘concerned that China’s pollution ratings do not take into account smaller particulate matter and ozone, both of which can have an adverse impact on the human body’ (1).

Cyclists who visited the city for a weekend to test the air complained of sore throats and blocked lungs. Australian Tour de France runner-up Cadel Evans said despondently that ‘unless we get everyone to stop driving for a month I guess there is not a lot we can do about it’ (2). It seems the Beijing smog has caused not only soreness of lungs, but also soaring levels of smugness among Western Olympics officials and athletes.

This is not the first time major cities have had to undertake the Olympian task of satisfying the IOC’s environmental ideals in the run-up to the Games. Air quality was a worry in Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988 and Athens in 2004. But in China, the problem is said to be of an unprecedented scale. As a result, car-banning is not the only measure being taken to meet the pollution-reduction targets set by the World Health Organisation. Central power plants have been shut down, industries have had to relocate out of town, and households have had to convert from coal to natural gas.

Of course, measures aimed at reducing pollution levels are generally a good thing. But some of the measures taken in Beijing smack of a new era of eco-authoritarianism which punishes the ‘polluting masses’ in order to satisfy the sensitivities of the elites. This is not just a question of protecting the health of athletes and spectators; it is about underhanded political pressure being put on China to conform to Western environmentalist agendas and to clamp down on its citizens’ consumption. It is the exportation of the politics of behaviour, which reigns in the West and encompasses everything from how we get to work to how we get rid of household waste.

It is understandable if the growing numbers of Chinese car owners should be disgruntled and offended by these trends taking hold in their country. ‘We just got used to driving and suddenly we’re not allowed?’ said a stock trader who bought her Chinese-manufactured car last year (3). To the West, the Chinese aspiring middle classes are the green threat that must be tamed – and the Olympics, it seems, is viewed as a great opportunity to further this taming goal.

Olympics-related concern with pollution, and its adverse effects on athletes’ performances, is not new. Yet today, such is the hysterical discussion of China’s ‘green threat’ that the Chinese authorities can introduce authoritarian measures with the support of the IOC and Western governments. In the past, if China banned motorists from the streets it would have been denounced for its ‘red authoritarianism’; but it seems that green authoritarianism is okay. It may be the case that China will use green and sustainable arguments to justify future authoritarian clampdowns, as it knows it is unlikely to face much criticism from the West.

Eco-friendly authoritarianism is the accepted order of the day in many parts of the world. But Beijing’s ban on driving in the name of eco-friendliness is enough to make even London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s congestion charges look pretty meek by comparison. Indeed, China’s actions have probably got our ‘green mayor’ dreaming of how far he’ll be able to take his own war on cars under the guise of protecting athletes’ lungs and London’s environmental reputation when it is London’s turn to host the Olympics in 2012.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen asked us to celebrate China’s economic miracle and suggested China shouldn’t be simply treated as a threat to the environment. Martyn Perks argued that London’s 2012 logo showed it didn’t know who or what the Olympics was for. Rob Lyons said the London bid had been based on sustainababble. Or read more at spiked issue China.

(1) Cars stay away but Beijing smog remains, Guardian, 20 August 2007

(2) Cars stay away but Beijing smog remains, Guardian, 20 August 2007

(3) Beijing takes car ban for test-drive, Chicago Tribune, 18 August 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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