Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Olympics, smog and China
Ushio - September 2007

At eight o’clock in the evening of the eighth of August, the eighth month of the eighth year of this decade, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games will begin. All those eights in the time and the date are supposed to be auspicious for this important milestone in China’s emergence into the modern world. Almost exactly a year before that ceremony, I paid a visit to Beijing. It showed how much still needs to be done to ensure that the Olympics are a success.

            The main measure of that success for China will be whether the Games improve the country’s image and reputation abroad. The main problem for that image used to be the country’s abuse of human rights. It still should be, for human rights are still abused in China, but memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 have faded. Most people’s idea of China is now dominated by economic growth, by cheap exported goods rather than the students whose demonstration was ended by tanks and bullets. 

            That growth is coming, however, with a new bad image. I saw it as soon as I arrived in Beijing. It was everywhere, around every new skyscraper, over every new street, outside every new hotel and every shopping mall. It is not just visible. It can be smelt and breathed. It is air pollution. And in Beijing this year, as August began, the smog was truly terrible.

            The smog cleared only when two successive nights of thunderstorms freshened up the air. The fact that on the second of those nights I was catching a plane from the city of Dalian in north-east China back to the capital meant that this air-freshening wasn’t entirely welcome from my selfish point of view, for the storms turned a 90 minute journey into one that took me more than seven hours. Nevertheless, the storms made Beijing air briefly quite pleasant to breathe.

            Naturally, the Chinese government is not simply going to rely on rain to clear the air in August next year. There will be tough measures to restrict the use of cars and trucks during the weeks before and during the Games. And some polluting factories will be closed down during that time in order to improve the air quality.

            This year’s ghastly smog showed that the government’s task will not be an easy one. But no doubt there will be some improvement if the temporary controls are properly enforced. The national importance of the Games makes it likely that enforcement will be strict. That does not, however, apply to the long-term problem of environmental damage in China.

            China has quite advanced rules about pollution of air and water, including standards for passenger car exhaust emissions that are of a similar standard to those in the European Union and Japan. The problem is one of enforcement. There is a national body with the responsibility for policing environmental standards, the State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA). But it has no real powers of punishment. And the local Environment Protection Boards that are supposed to look after pollution in every province and major city report to the local governors and mayors, not to SEPA. Local governors and mayors are much keener on economic growth than on environmental controls.

            This local preference for growth over cleanliness is partly driven by a desire for modernisation and the creation of higher-paying jobs for local people. But it is also driven by a desire for personal enrichment, given the many opportunities for corruption. Moreover, it is encouraged by the system of job evaluation used by the Communist Party for the promotion of officials, which rewards GDP growth.

            That job evaluation system is supposed to be changed soon to encompass environmental targets as well. But there has been no agreement among the party’s leadership on how this should be done. An attempt to calculate “green GDP” statistics, taking account of environmental costs, which was meant to be used for this new job evaluation system has been abandoned. Targets have been set for reducing air pollution by 10% and increasing energy efficiency by 20% by 2010. But even the Vice Minister at SEPA, Pan Yue, says he thinks it is unlikely that these targets will be achieved.

            All industrialising countries eventually encounter environmental problems and have to bring in new controls in order to tackle them. Japan began to work hard to make its economic growth cleaner in the early 1970s. China will have to do the same. If it does not, then it will face protests by the new Chinese urban middle class about pollution and other dangers. In fact, such protests have already begun. This year, a big protest movement in the southern coastal city of Xiamen forced the municipal government to suspend a project to build a chemicals factory in a residential area.

            So far, however, the fear of such protests has not convinced enough local officials or the central government to make the environment a real priority. Later this year, the Communist Party’s 17th National Party Congress will be held, an event which takes place every five years. In principle, it is possible that during this occasion the party leadership will strengthen its position sufficiently in order to build a consensus over the need to clean up China’s environment and achieve a more sustainable and balanced form of economic growth.

            Other pressures on China’s economy do point in the same direction, which is lucky. Trading partners want the Chinese currency to be upvalued, in order to reduce its huge trade surplus. The country’s central bank is worried about rising inflation. A stronger currency and stricter monetary policy would both also help to cut back the booming investment in the heavy industry which currently causes much of the pollution.

But also China needs a change of mindset, a change of national priorities. That change needs to last for longer than just the few weeks, in August 2008, of the Olympic Games in Beijing.


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