Beijing 2008: choking on China-bashing

Claims that the great Beijing smog will possibly kill Western athletes are based more on hot air than hard facts.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

For those nursing an ethically repackaged fear of the ‘Yellow Peril’, the Beijing Olympics are proving invaluable. Whatever the occasion for moral posture, be it the authorities’ suppression of political dissidents or China’s relentless industrialisation, there it is, hanging over China – the threat of an Olympic Games boycott. Being the Olympics host, it seems, requires inviting not just the world’s best athletes, but its sanctimony, too.

Most recently, of course, it has been the plight of the Tibetans that has prompted murmurings of an Olympics no-show (1). Never far away, however, are the pleas for non-attendance that cite China’s environmental record. The most recent instance of this involves the decision of the Ethiopian marathon world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, not to compete in the Olympic marathon (2). His reason? ‘The pollution in China is a threat to my health and it would be difficult to run 42 kilometres in my current condition.’ (3) By ‘current condition’, Gebrselassie is referring to his exercise-induced asthma. Unfortunately, coming on the back of Belgian tennis player Justine Henin’s withdrawal last September for the same reason – they are both asthma sufferers – his announcement has received a more general interpretation: the Beijing Olympics are bad for people’s health. The Sydney Morning Herald even felt it necessary to advise its readers on ‘How to combat Olympic fever’.

Yet while China’s air is still of a lower quality than that in many advanced Western countries – it has 16 cities ranked in the world’s top 20 most polluted – the claim that it might threaten the health, not only of asthmatic athletes, but every athlete who heads to Beijing this summer, does not stand up to scrutiny. Analysis of data sets taken during test events held in August 2007 – including humidity, wind, ozone and particulate matter – showed athletes’ health to be largely unimpaired by environmental conditions. Furthermore, team physicians reported no health issues relating to air quality (4).

Nevertheless, Beijing’s smog is becoming big news. As BBC sports correspondent Gordon Farquhar said last August: ‘All the talk has been about human rights but there has been a growing realisation that Beijing has a smog problem.’ (5) Indeed, from the moment China won the right to host the 2008 Olympics seven years ago, the social and environmental costs – though not the massive benefits – of its rapid industrial development have come under increasing scrutiny. In a sense this was predictable. When it won the bid in 2001, the Beijing Olympic committee played up its environmental conscience, placing great emphasis on staging a ‘green’ Olympics. As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) noted at the time, Beijing has ‘an ambitious set of plans’ to ‘improve its environmental condition’. Although these plans were not ‘dependent’ on hosting the Games, the IOC argued, the fact that the Games were taking place in Beijing would provide an ‘impetus’, a ‘catalyst’ for their implementation (6). In its desperation to stage the Games, China made itself hostage to the cultural climate in the West.

And what a climate. Demoralised, anxious and desperately wanting purpose, Western elites have sought ever-deeper refuge in the semblance of a rationale offered by environmentalism. In such a context, economic growth and development, once the source of capitalist legitimacy, have acquired a threatening aspect. As one of the most rapidly developing nations on earth, under Western eyes, China appears as merely the most potent symbol of baleful modernity.

It is from this perspective that pollution, the problem of ‘Beijing’s smog’, is too easily understood not as a practical problem with a practical, technological solution, but as an indictment of China’s economic development, and of China itself. Hearing of Gebrselassie’s withdrawal from the marathon, political activist Peter Tatchell declaimed: ‘The Beijing air is so toxic that no athlete can participate safely at this summer’s games.’ Not only will athletes collapse, he rapped, ‘some may die’. Clearly having reached the correct shrill pitch he concluded: ‘Pollution in the host city is now at such alarming levels that the International Olympic Committee should do the right thing and cancel the 2008 Olympic Games. The city is dangerous for athletes and everyone [else]… It is far too late to make the Olympics safe or to save the lives of the many Beijing residents who are sick – or dead – because of their government’s policy of abusing the environment.’ (7)

Increasingly, news reports and commentaries about the Beijing Olympics cannot do without a reference to the environmental situation. As the New York Times put it, China is ‘choking on growth’ (8). Rapidly slipping between the factual and the figurative, pollution provides the metaphorical framework with which to condemn the Chinese – growth becomes synonymous with man’s pollution of the environment (to the extent that China is said to have a ‘policy of abusing the environment’), and development comes to be seen as indissociably toxic. Take the report on Gebrselassie’s Olympics withdrawal from The Times (London). The start of the article addressed the practical problem of pollution, but it concluded with a quote from Reggie Littlejohn, a US lawyer advising Human Rights without Frontiers International: ‘China’s toxic air reflects its equally foul human rights record. It appears doubtful that Beijing will take the robust and decisive measures required to ensure safe air for the Olympics.’ (9)

Contrary to such pessimism, China is actually making a considerable effort to lower pollution levels in time for the Olympics. A United Nations report, Beijing 2008 Olympic Games: An Environmental Review shows that the Chinese authorities are making some headway in their attempt to improve air quality. Older modes of transport have been scrapped, major industries have been refitted and relocated, and many coal-burning boilers have been replaced by ‘cleaner’ fuels. The effect has been pronounced: in 1998, the number of days with air quality equal or above national standard was just 100; in 2001, the year Beijing was selected to host the Games, it had risen to 185. By 2006, it was 241 (10). Such improvements are reflected in the fall in the annual mean concentration of all airborne pollutants: carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide levels and particulate matter. However, while carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide all now meet the World Health Organisation guidelines for air quality, concentration of particulate matter is still too high, sometimes by as much as 200 per cent (11).

Problems clearly remain in China’s environment, but there is little doubting China’s effort to clean up and also to please the West. By implementing a number of initiatives, the UN report stated, ‘the city [of Beijing] can boast significant achievements’ (12). The executive general of the United Nations Environmental Programme Achim Steiner was likewise fulsome in his praise: ‘The more than $12 billion spent by the Municipal Government and Government of China, appears to have been well spent – and will be even more well spent if the lessons learnt and measures adopted are picked up by municipalities across the country so as to leave a real and lasting nationwide legacy.’ (13) The IOC also echoes this favourable view of Beijing’s efforts, with Arne Ljungqvist, the IOC’s top medical officer, announcing on Monday that ‘the conditions will be good for athletes’, before adding the qualifier ‘although they will not necessarily be ideal’ (14).

Not that such broadly positive reports have inhibited the China-bashing. So virulent is the green fear of the Yellow Peril that for some commentators, the Beijing Olympics are damned before the fact. There is a sense that whatever China does, it will not be enough. For in the West, China’s air pollution is not being seen as a particular practical challenge, but as the affirmative Other of Western self-loathing. In other words, while developed nations make an environmentalist virtue of economic restraint, they simultaneously make a sin of economic growth and industrial development. As a hostage to such Western pessimism, China either has to conform or be vilified.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

(1) See Tibet poses dilemma for Beijing, BBC News, 14 March 2008

(2) Gebrselassie expects more athletes to bow out of Olympics because of air pollution, International Herald Tribune, 17 March 2008

(3) Beijing too polluted for me to run the marathon, says Haile Gebrselassie, The Times, 11 March 2008

(4) IOC analyses Beijing air quality data, Olympic Movement, 17 March 2008

(5) Pollution risk for Olympic events, BBC News, 8 August 2007

(6) Beijing 2008 Olympic Games – an environmental review, UNEP, October 2007 p.86

(7) The pollution marathon, Guardian 12 March 2008

(8) See Choking on growth part IX – Beijing’s Olympics quest: turning smoggy sky blue, New York Times, 29 December 2007

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Topics World


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