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Dirty Air And The Beijing Olympics

Published: July 30 2008 19:09 | Last updated: July 30 2008 19:09 – Financial Times

The arrival of dense smog in both Beijing and Hong Kong in recent days has delivered a salutary fright to the organisers of the Olympics less than two weeks before the opening of the games on August 8.

Officials in both cities have tried every trick in their propaganda arsenals to play down the significance of the air pollution. They have blamed unfavourable weather conditions, which simply means there has not been enough wind to blow the pollution somewhere else. And, in the case of Beijing, they have pointed out that the pollution would have been even worse had they not taken special measures to protect the Olympics.

These assertions are true, but provide no comfort. Indeed, the dreadful quality of Beijing’s air even after construction work has been halted, factories closed and vehicle traffic restricted demonstrates the severity of the environmental crisis afflicting modern China. Bad air threatens not only the short-term performance of Olympic athletes (who will in any case have left by the end of August), but also the long-term health of the entire Chinese urban population, not to mention the health of the planet’s atmosphere.

China promised a “Green Olympics” and has done much to try to achieve that goal, as acknowledged in a report released this week by Greenpeace, the environmental group. But Chinese leaders have also failed to recognise the extreme seriousness of the country’s air pollution and have favoured the appearance of progress over the difficult actions required to make progress real.

Hong Kong, a wealthy and autonomous city state whose tycoons have invested heavily in the polluting industries of neighbouring Guangdong, has done virtually nothing in the past five years to reverse the steady deterioration of south China’s air quality. On Monday, the city was shrouded in a brown miasma and suffered the worst pollution levels on record as it prepared to host the equestrian events of the Olympics.

Prompted by the approach of the games, Beijing has done more, including the investment of billions of dollars in new metro lines. Unfortunately, nervous party officials have also fiddled with air pollution measuring systems to produce illusory improvements in air quality, and have recently refused to provide essential data even to scientists contracted to advise the authorities on how to improve the air for the Olympics. They have accused foreign photographers of trying to make China look bad and resorted to the old Hong Kong lie that the smoke and dust in the air is “haze” not pollution.

The recent smoggy conditions show the folly of this mixture of secrecy and spin, because the thousands of visitors to Beijing and Hong Kong can see and breathe the air for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. Athletes and officials will understandably hope for more of the breezes that blew the smog away on Wednesday, but they have been duly reminded that while wind may temporarily disguise the crisis, it is not a permanent solution to one of China’s most pressing environmental challenges.

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