Thursday, February 28, 2008

We in the west will pay for our complicity with China

Herald UK: HARRY REID - The world's biggest building, designed like a monster dragon, opens tomorrow. Needless to say, it is in China and it is an airport terminal. The new Beijing Airport building is bigger than all Heathrow's terminals - including the new Terminal Five - put together.

There are 300 check-in desks. There are 40 miles of luggage-carrying conveyor belts. The car park has space for 7000 vehicles. The construction incorporates more than 500,000 tonnes of steel. The building houses 64 restaurants. More than 50,000 workers were involved with the project, which was completed within four years. Before too long - certainly by 2011 - the terminal will process 90 million passengers a year. Within days, Beijing will be in the elite league of busiest airports, joining Heathrow, Atlanta and Chicago O'Hare.

And that is just one building. Cascades of statistics point to China's remarkable growth. Over the next decade, it will build 100 new airports. One estimate suggested that, on average, it was completing a new power station every four days.

There is obviously a dark side to these statistics. China is a polluter on a mega-scale. It is the world's biggest consumer of coal, and the biggest importer of illegally logged timber. Precious water is being diverted from outlying areas to Beijing for the forthcoming Olympics. Hydro-power projects threaten the livelihoods of millions of peasants.

Basic human rights are being systematically abused. The Chinese state executes at least 10,000 people a year. Amnesty International can provide a plethora of statistics pointing to the pervasive use of torture by the state, and the widespread detention of dissidents. The Falun Gong religious sect has been brutally repressed.

Despite this, there is courageous dissent. Four years ago I saw a brilliant film by the independent film-maker Li Yang. Called Blind Shaft, shamefully it was shown on very limited release in Britain. Despite being acted by amateurs, it was an unforgettably powerful exposé of the grotesque conditions in the unregulated coalmines of northern China, where thousands die every year.

China has an increasingly prosperous middle class, but they are to be found on the coastal strip, where most of the expansion is concentrated. To the north and the west there are conditions of appalling poverty and degradation. A few years ago, an official of the World Bank told me there would be a civil war in China. It has not happened yet, and at present I'd bet against it, but internal disparities and tensions are growing almost as fast as the economy.

If the Chinese regime found itself in real trouble internally, it might do what precarious governments often do - start expanding aggressively overseas. Apart from the disgraceful occupation of Tibet, China has so far been remarkably restrained in terms of foreign adventurism and military posturing, for such an expansionist economy. Taiwan is a constant danger. If the Chinese make a move there, the US administration - of whatever colour - will respond immediately. And Sino-Japanese relations remain at best acutely strained, a legacy of the Second World War, when the Japanese committed atrocity after atrocity on mainland China. More civilians died in that specific conflict than in any other country.

China is already practising non-military expansion, trawling through Africa and elsewhere for oil and other resources. Notoriously, it is a leading purchaser of Sudanese oil, and the principal supplier of military ordnance to Sudan's government. Darfur stains China as much as it does Sudan.

Yet we in the west cannot take a high moral line on any of this - the growing pollution, the disdain for human rights, the crushing of dissent. We are complicit in so much of it, not least because we continue to rely so heavily on the endless factories of this vast and enigmatic country. We consume Chinese goods because they are cheap; we do not worry about their provenance.

And who designed that dragon-shaped terminal? The British architect Norman Foster. The lead contractor was the British-based construction company Arup.

This summer, hundreds of British sportsmen will travel to China for the Olympics. Their participation cannot be divorced from the efforts of the Chinese regime to showcase the event for its own ends. Of course, the Games will be irredeemably tainted - but will that deter millions of television viewers in Britain, willing on our heroes and heroines for the (very) occasional medal?

If we are to take a moral line of any credibility, we must boycott the Olympics, stop outsourcing our manufacturing to China and refuse to purchase Chinese goods. Some chance. I once told my daughter that her grandchildren will in be in some kind of servitude, most probably economic, to the coming powerhouses of China, India and Brazil. She didn't believe me then, but she is beginning to believe me now.


OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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