Beijing has spent more than Ethiopia’s $13 billion (Rs53,040 crore) economy improving its air quality. The marathon world record holder, an Ethiopian, isn’t impressed. He’s taking a pass on running 26 miles (42km) in the city this summer. Haile Gebrselassie was favoured to win the gold at the Beijing Olympics in August. Instead, the 34-year-old may focus on running the 10,000m event, fearing his history of asthma won’t mix well with China’s smog.
China pooh-poohed Steven Spielberg blowing off the Oly-mpics on human rights grounds related to Sudan. It’s harder to dismiss athletes worried about their health as self-serving troublemakers. Justine Henin,the 2004 gold medallist in tennis, may avoid Beijing because of air quality concerns.
Could Beijing medals come with an asterisk because some of the best athletes weren’t there?
Beijing 2008 is supposed to be China’s full arrival on the international scene, according it new levels of respect and nuance. Imagine the disappointment if headlines focus on designer facemasks and competitors wheezing towards finish lines. Foreign minister Yang Jiechi thinks it’s much ado about nothing. “Most athletes who are coming to Beijing are satisfied and have confidence in the air quality, environment and sports facilities in Beijing,” Yang said last week.
Presumably, Yang hasn’t noticed that International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge is open to rescheduling endurance events to protect athletes from poor air quality. More than Sudan, Tibet or Taiwan, pollution may be a public relations nightmare for China.
What’s more, environmental degradation is becoming China’s biggest long-term economic challenge. It’s not clear China’s leaders understand that the needs to grow rapidly and reduce pollution are in direct conflict.
Premier Wen Jiabao did say recently that China “must increase our sense of urgency and intensify efforts to make great progress” on the environment. The government, he said, will redouble efforts to close high-pollution factories and clean up major river basins. Last month, China launched its first national survey of pollution sources. It has also elevated the state environmental protection administration to a full ministry. While that’s all well and good, it’s not the giant step forward advertised.
The new ministry won’t control regional and grass-roots anti-pollution watchdog agencies. That will leave them under the direction of local leaders, who focus solely on rapid economic growth to win favour in Beijing.
China is getting impatient with activists linking politics to the Olympics. Spielberg’s resignation as an artistic adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies made headlines. Actor George Clooney is urging Omega Watches, an Olympic sponsor that he promotes, to speak out on China’s Sudan policies. Singer Bjork probably generated the most news of her career in Beijing recently by calling for Tibetan independence. The free-Tibet movement sees the Olympics as an ideal news peg. Admittedly, what a couple of celebrities say won’t matter much to a nation governing 1.3 billion people.
Yet, China’s support for Sudan’s genocidal regime is hard to defend. China likes to keep its foreign and economic policies separate. It needs Sudan’s oil and argues it has every right to be its biggest trading partner. China is also a key enabler of Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir, protecting him at the United Nations (UN).
Chinese sales of assault rifles and other small arms to Sudan have grown rapidly, non-profit group Human Rights First said last week. It said China sold Sudan $55 million of small arms from 2003 to 2006 and provided it with 90% of such weaponry since 2004, when a UN arms embargo began.
Outrage over China’s African adventure is dominating Olympics coverage overseas. The Darfur issue is sucking the air out of the good news stories China wants to promote. That is, when the story isn’t about Beijing’s air. When you think of forces that could derail China’s 11% growth, pollution is a big, albeit underappreciated, one.
Right to breathe
Nothing captures the tension between China’s boom and the need to maintain social stability as much as the environment. If you think the fastest Chinese inflation rates in 11 years are troubling now, just wait until factories used to polluting with abandon are reined in and have to raise prices.
Ask Chinese officials about pollution risks and many will say you are exaggerating. Yet, how is that so when the World Bank says China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities? Or that, as per human rights groups, 750,000 people in China die each year from illnesses related to foul air?
Human rights campaigners tend to focus on China’s treatment of dissidents and censoring of the Internet. Soon enough, the biggest problem for China’s population might be the right to breathe.
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