Monday, July 28, 2008

Beijing obscures Olympic smog problem in haze of denial

Posted: July 28, 2008, 1:30 PM by Kelly McParland

When Chinese troops inconveniently killed somewhere between 300 and 3,000 students in Tiananmen Square almost 20 years ago, it dealt with the international reaction by simply reclassifying what had gone on.

There was never a “massacre” in the square, according to the lexicon adopted by Chinese officialdom. It was an “incident”. In public utterances by those responsible, and their acolytes, it became “the Tiananmen incident”, a small event, similar to a fender-bender, or that little tiff you had with an office colleague last month. All those dead bodies? Those were “splittists” and enemies of public order. Shooting a few splittists doesn’t equate to a massacre.

Du Shaozhong obviously knows his history. The deputy director of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau sought to solve the vexing problem of the city’s crappy air on the weekend by reclassifying what qualifies as pollution.

A great grey pall, so bad it obscures the view of structures a few hundred yards away? Nah, that’s not pollution. A thick soup of smog that hides the newly-constructed Olympic facilities behind a wall of haze? You must be joking -- you call that pollution? Zillions of tiny particles in the air, pushing air quality indicators into the “dangerous” territory, dangerous for children or the elderly? Hey -- what’s with the questions? You’re starting to sound like a splittist to me.

Du, invoking a communist tradition that holds that if you refuse to admit the existence of a problem, it doesn’t really exist, declared that what may look like smog is really just moisture in the air, like steam from a hot bath.

“It’s not necessarily pollution” he said, encouraging reporters to stop trusting the evidence of their own eyes. Could be fog, or maybe dust, or maybe your glasses are just dirty. Sure, you could look out the window and notice the sky has all but disappeared, but what kind of scientific proof is that? As an agent of an official Chinese agency, he guaranteed there would be no problem with air pollution when the Olympic Games get underway in just a few days.

Unfortunately for Mr. Du, some irresponsible members of the international press have shown a reluctance to accept his guarantee, citing the obvious fact that the air quality stinks.

“On Sunday, temperatures of about 90 degrees, with 70% humidity and low winds, created a soupy mix of harmful chemicals, particulate matter and water vapor,” the Associated Press reported. Britain’s BBC has been running a daily pollution index, accompanied by photos illustrating the variations in the air quality. Some athletes are staying away from Beijing as long as possible to avoid having to breath the stuff, according to the AP. The U.S. Olympic Committee was offering team members protective masks.

China’s government has gone to considerable efforts to remedy the situation, ordering cars off the road and temporarily shutting down some of the power plants and factories that are the cause. Further measures may be taken, including ordering all but 10% of vehicles from the roads and closing more work sites.

A better solution might be to adopt remedies that could have a long-term effect, rather than just cleaning up the place until the foreigners leave town. Say, slowing down the regular roll-out of new coal-fired power plants. But that would require more than just a passing show of concern. As China has illustrated at one forum after another, it’s not really interested in anything that ambitious: As a developing country, it gets a pass on greenhouse gas emissions, even though it’s the biggest producer. Far better to pretend pollution isn’t a problem, and wait for the nosy foreigners to go away. It worked with Tiananmen.

Photo, top: Volunteers walk in front of the Olympic studio tower at the Olympic Green in Beijing July 28, 2008. Beijing is ready to expand an already drastic pollution-cutting scheme by taking more cars off the roads and shutting more factories if air quality remains a problem during the Olympic Games, state media said on Monday. REUTERS/Jason Lee .

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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