So far, it is looking like the Olympics in Beijing will be a disgrace—for host nation China, that is. Over the past few days, American television has aired horrendous images of athletes with facemasks arriving in smog-choked Beijing, and sparse protestors roughly whisked away by Chinese police. Amidst recent reports that smog hung even from the ceiling of Beijing's proud new (breathable!) Aquatic center, much to the horror of international swimmers already congregated there, it seemed certain even before the Olympics began that they are a shaping up to be an epic public relations nightmare for China. This is awful news for China, which has spent tens of billions of dollars preparing for the games—but good news for the world perhaps.
I can think of no recent Olympics where the host nation has been so embarrassed—and has so embarrassed itself. Only a month ago, China had to deploy fishing fleets to skim algae bloom from its coastal seas—the result of massive pollution—so that the Olympic yachting competition could take place. And in the spring, of course, the Chinese army brutally disrupted demonstrations in Tibet, resulting in several deaths. This action in particular prompted fiery protests along the global route of the Olympic torch making its way to Beijing.
As far as I can see, international criticism of China—even revulsion—is justified. Of course, it is only justified so long as the rest of the world comes to recognize that it is somehow complicit in China's gross offenses. After all, the rest of the world benefits tremendously from China's environmental laxity and human rights abuses. Perhaps this is why the Chinese take such umbrage to our self righteous ire...
There are few better examples of humanity's destruction of the environment than China. Northern China is shrouded by a wide swath of smog visible from space, which apparently blows as far as Los Angeles at times. China's rivers are poisoned dead, if they are not already dried up from overuse. The North is so desperate for potable water—any water—that the Chinese government is planning a 1200-kilometer-long canal from the Yangtze feeding the Yellow river.
But China pollutes so that we don't have to. Americans enjoy a flood of cheap Chinese manufactured products on sale at Wal-mart, but their cheapness is due in large part to the lack of environmental regulations hampering industry in China. We pride ourselves on clean skies in former industrial centers like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but we have simply exported heavy industry and pollution to China.
Of course, China has driven down prices even further thanks to its human rights abuses. Chinese factory workers toil long hours for minimal pay, under safety conditions outlawed here, and they are prevented from organizing. The Chinese government stifles democratization amongst the populace, but democratization may well bring clamoring for greater workers' rights, much as it did in the US. And then Chinese goods wouldn't be so cheap anymore. Chinese manufacturers would, like their American counterparts, have to recoup the cost of workers' benefits and protections in the price of their products.
But I am optimistic about the impact of the Beijing Olympics. In fact, the more embarrassing the better. These Olympics have been touted as China's grand entry onto the world stage as a major global power of the 21st century. Well, if China would assume that title, it must face up to its awesome shortcomings. And its shortcomings are being exposed in magnificent fashion. If the world is more repulsed than impressed by its glimpse of China in these Olympics, I hope that this will give the Chinese government pause. And the Western consumer, in taking a hard look at China, may also realize the true cost of low-cost products.
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This story was published on August 12, 2008.