Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The not so ‘green’ Beijing Olympics

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games have been billed as the ‘Green Olympics’ by the Chinese regime, with its ambitious commitments to improve air and water quality in the Chinese capital.

Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. But rather than tackling the real problems, Chinese officials have opted for a number of short-term and largely cosmetic measures that will mostly only last for the duration of the games.

Despite spending almost $17 billion on environmental improvements for the Olympic Games, Beijing’s non-stop construction boom and exploding car usage have largely thwarted government efforts to improve air quality.

From 20 July until September, when the Olympics and Paralympics Games will have finished, 1.5 million cars will be ordered off the city’s roads in order to thin out the level of airborne toxins.

Nearly 200 steel, cement, chemical and other factories have been closed or relocated outside city boundaries. Many workers have been laid-off. Others are forced to take ‘Olympic holidays’ with a drastic cut in wages.

Up to 70% of Beijing’s atmospheric pollution comes from surrounding provinces – just one example of how the city’s Olympic face-lift has been sabotaged by processes in the wider economy.

A United Nations report found that in 2006 the average level of small particulate matter, which damages the lungs, in Beijing’s air was eight times higher than World Health Organisation guidelines.

Beijing’s 17 million inhabitants must breathe this air every day, not just during a three-week international competition. For a child exposed to this level of airborne toxins, it is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day!

An even bigger threat to air quality is presented by Beijing’s growing car pool, which will number 3.3 million by the time of the Olympics. More than a thousand new cars roll onto the city’s roads every day.

China’s transformation from ‘bicycle kingdom’ into the world’s second-biggest and fastest-growing vehicle market shows the destructive power of capitalism and its blind chase for profits. The sheer insanity from an environmental perspective of reproducing the Western capitalist model of mass car ownership in China – with 1.3 billion people – should be obvious to anyone.

Yet the global motor giants, welcomed with open arms by the government, are doing their utmost to insure that China continues along this road. These companies have invested huge sums in recent years as they pin their hopes on China to offset sluggish or falling sales in other markets. The market leader, General Motors, now sells over a million cars annually in China. Volkswagen sells more cars in China than in Germany.

Investment in railways, by far the most environmentally friendly means of mass transportation, has been dwarfed by a frenetic road-building programme. One of the reasons for this is that almost all China’s expressways are toll roads, mainly financed by private companies under contract to provincial governments.

China is the world’s second largest oil importer and motor vehicles now consume over half its imported oil. China now buys more oil from Saudi Arabia than the US does, and is the biggest foreign investor in oil producers Iran and Sudan.

In geopolitical as well as ecological terms, therefore, the advent of ‘car culture’ in China is reshaping the world and setting the stage for future clashes between the older imperialist powers and a rising China.

Socialist alternative

Yet an alternative to mass car ownership with all its attendant ills is nowhere to be seen. This is now urgent not just in China but internationally.

The socialist alternative involves democratic control and planning of economic development and the redirection of resources from destructive to socially necessary and environmentally sustainable production.

Instead of today’s wasteful and duplicated competition among 120 China-based car companies the resources and accumulated labour skills of this industry should be pooled and channelled into a massive expansion of safe, cheap and efficient public transport.

If current trends continue, scientists warn, China’s increased production of greenhouse gases will be several times larger than the cuts in emissions being made by older industrialised nations.

Clearly, China’s one-party regime is incapable of arresting the country’s – and with it the whole planet’s – headlong rush towards ecological disaster. Only by wresting control of industrial production from the present elite of capitalists and unelected state officials, and involving the entire population in drawing up a democratic socialist plan for environmentally sustainable economic development can the present disastrous course be changed.

By Vincent Kolo and Chen Lizhi


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