The Newest Oldest Empire

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
Trip End Sep 03, 2006

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

In the 21st century China is synonymous with pollution, so much so that it's tempting to imagine that, along with gunpowder, the compass and printing press, the Chinese invented it. An introduction to Beijing smog might start as early as the airport, where the air was an impenetrable whitewash of haze. And Beijing isn't even the worst city in China, which according to the World Bank has 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities. Across the country an estimated 300,000 people a year die prematurely from respiratory diseases.

A lot is said of the smog, the choking rivers, and the "yellow wind", dust from an increasingly eroded landscape, blowing all over East Asia and as far as the continental US. But the question of air quality may also be a kind of smokescreen over larger, more complex and far more interesting issues. Saying that China is polluted is a bit like saying Africa is poor: statements undoubtedly true, but ones that don't answer, let alone pose, any questions about why things are the way they are and what's to be done about it.

Behind the pollution are some startling--and some unsettling--realities about the world's most populous country. China has the fastest-growing economy on the planet. In 2005 the country's average Gross Domestic Product grew by 9.9%. By comparison, America's GDP for the same year grew by 3.5% (Canada weighed in at 2.9%). In sectors such as industry and services the Chinese figures are even higher, 47% and 40% respectively.

From an economic standpoint it's not hard to understand why some in the west, particularly in the United States, are so afraid of China's growing status as a super power, even if the US is largely responsible for making it happen. China is America's "Favoured Trading Nation," and as such Chinese exports to the US have risen by more than 1600% in the past 15 years, while US exports to China have risen by more than 400%. Last year, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz told CNBC that in a few years there will probably be more Starbucks locations in China than there are in the US.

The growing market for foreign luxuries is part of a long-standing trend in modern China. In Beijing, our tour guide, Dave, summed up the "Three Bigs", a colloquial measure of one's standard of living. Thirty years ago if you owned a sewing machine, a watch and bicycle you were considered well off in China. In the eighties it was a washing machine, a television and a motorbike. Now the Three Bigs are an apartment, a credit card and a car.

Such growth in consumer demand and economic output is creating enormous change in the country, accompanied by a quest for greater prestige and a better role for China on the world stage. Beijing's National Stadium will go some distance to providing the platform for China's coming out party, the 2008 summer Olympics. Rising on the edge of downtown, the 100,000-seat stadium, dubbed the Bird Cage by the Chinese press, will host the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as dozens of events.

Today the stadium is but a massive steel shell, sparkling with the spray of hundreds of welders' torches, surrounded by a city bristling with cranes and construction sites. Driving past the Bird Cage, still very much under construction and apparently over budget, it's possible to feel the scope of Chinese thinking, not just of the Olympics but also of much larger ambitions. For China, there is no greater goal than regaining its position in the world.

More than any other modern country, China has an immense and unparalleled cultural legacy. Egypt has its pyramids, Greece its columns, and Italy has Rome, but there's no country on earth like China; an ancient modern superpower. America may have the power and the glory, but China has the staying power.

So what does this have to do with pollution and the Olympics and the future of world politics, and why should we care? The changes in China are very much in the air. The country is making real efforts to combat pollution and industrial waste. Beijing is cleaning up ahead of the Games, moving factories out of the city and running some public buses on electricity. But the city's roads are becoming more choked with cars, as some 1000 new automobiles join the traffic every month.

As well as car emissions, coal burning is the largest cause of pollution, and accounts for 70% of the country's energy needs. China still relies on coal not just for industrial power but also for domestic heat and cooking. If Beijing, and China in general, can temper its reliance on coal then pollution levels could be greatly reduced.

Yet China's economic boom has dredged up other, more far reaching problems than dirty air. Two decades ago the economic reforms brought in by Mao's successor, Den Xiaoping, had created a prosperous, rural peasantry at the expense of a disenfranchised urban intellectual and industrial populous. This was the background to--and the tinder for--the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Twenty years later the roles have been reversed, as China's cities have become engines of growth and productivity, and hundreds of thousands of farmers and peasants have been forced to leave the countryside and become industrial workers in the cities. And not everyone finds a job in the big city. It's estimated that within China there are some 150 million people without work, a veritable army of unemployed.

There are a lot of unhappy people in the countryside, and despite China's reputation for repression there have been wide spread protests. The situation is creating not only despair and destitution in rural areas but also the possibility of serious internal conflict.

Then there are the perennial human rights concerns. China executes more people than any other country in the world. Amnesty International says that at least 3,400 people were executed in 2004, 90% of the world's reported total. And the figure may be much higher. A senior Chinese legislator in March 2004 suggested that the figure is "nearly 10,000" people a year. In 1997 lethal injection was introduced alongside the usual bullet to the head, and specially modified execution vans now prowl the country.

State sanctioned mass murder and mobile death chambers. Nasty stuff that even the status of the Olympics will have a hard time brushing aside. Human Rights Watch is already sounding the alarm over forced evictions and the destruction of homes and business in Beijing in preparations for 2008. But at least they sound a positive note, something all too rarely heard on the subject of China and its future. The organization says it "hopes that the 2008 Olympics will be an impetus for China to demonstrate greater respect for the human rights guaranteed to all under international law."

High hopes, perhaps, but then the Chinese have just such hopes for themselves. China has a significant role to play in the immediate future, and the rest of the world has a part in shaping that role. Will it be a cold hard cash relationship, or one of engagement on trade and a sincere pressure on human rights, or simply a continued fear and loathing toward what may very well become the world's next superpower?

The answer may be blowing in the dirty wind, but at least the air clears from time to time. On our third day in Beijing the haze lifted, revealing a gorgeous, azure blue sky stirred by wispy white clouds. It seemed like the entire city was transformed. The broad streets and buildings were markedly better looking in the sunshine, and everyone's mood improved with the change in weather. It was a brief and brilliant window before the haze closed in again.
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