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Smog in Beijing

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, August 8, 2008

Bring on the Olympics. Please. When Paris Hilton dominates the presidential campaign for a whole week, even spelling out a plan for achieving energy independence, it is sooooo time for a break.

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There will be no respite, however, from the obligation to think hard about choices and consequences -- no hiatus from having to ponder America's place in the world and its prospects for the young century. The spectacle in Beijing promises to be, well, spectacular -- but in the sense of the word that encompasses both the exhilarating and the horrifying.

On proud display will be China's explosive economic growth, which has lifted more people out of poverty in less time than any such burst of development in history. Much less visible, Chinese authorities hope, will be the shameful political repression that continues to deny basic rights and freedoms to China's 1.3 billion citizens.

I should make clear that I'm glad the Olympics are being held in China, because I've always believed the way to deal with repressive governments is engagement, not isolation. China's economic miracle never could have happened if the Chinese leadership didn't allow personal freedoms that would have been unimaginable in the days of Mao jackets and Little Red Books. These Games, and the intense spotlight they focus on the host country, may ultimately spur further reforms.

We all should acknowledge, though, that nothing of the sort has happened yet. According to Human Rights Watch, the run-up to the Games "has been marred by a well-documented surge in violations of the rights of free expression and association, as well as media freedom. In addition, abuses of migrant construction workers who were pivotal to Beijing's infrastructure improvements have increased, as have evictions of Beijing residents whose homes were demolished to make way for that infrastructure."

Amnesty International agrees, reporting that a "crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers has intensified because Beijing is hosting the Olympics. The authorities have stepped up repression of dissident voices in their efforts to present an image of 'stability' and 'harmony' to the outside world."

Stopping in Thailand on his way to Beijing, President Bush grappled with the contradiction inherent in the fact that holding the Olympics in China has, arguably and perhaps for the short term, made the human rights situation worse.

"America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists," he said. "We press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs."

Bush added, "Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions. Yet change will arrive."

I think he's right, but I'm not as sure as I once was. The Chinese government has been skillful in encouraging economic growth while also squelching political freedom. As I watch the Olympics, I'll be wondering whether the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism will prove durable -- and, if so, how we'll come to look back on these Games.

During the next two weeks of pageantry and competition, I'll also be paying attention -- as far as possible, through the television screen -- to the Beijing sky. Will there be days of actual blue? Or is whitish-bluish gray about the best we can hope for? And, more important than the color of the air, will it be breathable?

Beijing's smog may prove uniquely effective in focusing attention on the kinds of environmental choices the world now faces. China's economic boom has been quite literally breathtaking.

Chinese authorities knew the dirty air was a problem -- the world's best athletes can hardly be expected to perform at their peak if they're breathing factory smoke and tailpipe exhaust -- so officials did everything they could to clean it up. Beginning several years ago, they moved some polluting factories to other parts of the country. In recent days they have imposed driving restrictions. If a rain shower is needed to clear the air, officials will attempt to generate one by seeding clouds.

According to reports from Beijing, though, the effect of any of these measures is hard to quantify. Ignoring the environmental implications of decades of rapid development has created a situation unlikely to respond to quick fixes. My guess is that watching the Olympics will give me, and perhaps others, a new appreciation of what environmentalists mean when they talk about the world we're leaving for our grandchildren.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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