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Olympic Pollution Games

August 4, 2008

The Wall Street Journal
August 2, 2008; Page A10

Ever since Beijing was named in 2001 to host the 2008 Summer Games,
Chinese officials have been promising a "blue-sky" Olympics. Now, a
week before the Games begin, pollution is threatening to rival sports
as the biggest story out of Beijing. If the skies don't clear, watch
for the haze over Bird's Nest Stadium to be a signature image of the Games.

This is partly because some 20,000 journalists are descending on the
Chinese capital and the first thing that hits them -- literally --
when they get off the plane is the pollution. Twenty of the globe's
30 most polluted cities are in the Middle Kingdom, according to the
World Bank. Another list puts the Chinese tally at 16 of the top 20.
Some 70% of the country's lakes and rivers are contaminated,
according to Chinese environmental officials. Hundreds of millions of
rural Chinese lack clean drinking water.

In the leadup to the Olympics, China reportedly has spent $10 billion
to improve air quality in Beijing. Most recently, local mandarins
have been living out every radical environmentalist's greenest dream:
shutting down factories by fiat, halting new construction, banning
cars. Workers are required to go on partial-pay or forced to take
vacation. This is not the way market economies work and it's a
reminder that, for all its reforms, China is still run by Communists
who haven't shaken the habits of a planned economy.

On one level, China's pollution problem is a symbol of its success, a
reflection of the country's rapid economic growth since Deng Xiaoping
first turned toward free-market policies 30 years ago. China is now
the world's fourth-largest economy with an average per-capita income
of more than $2,300. During that period some 400 million people --
more than the population of the U.S. -- have been lifted out of poverty.

A growing economy requires energy, and coal provides more than
three-quarters of China's needs. Coal is cheap but its use in
factories that lack clean technology is responsible for much of the
country's air pollution. Higher living standards play a role too.
Homes routinely have electricity now, and more than one lightbulb.
Personal cars were nonexistent 30 years ago; today they are rapidly
replacing bicycles on China's streets.

Beijing's leaders know they have a problem, and President Hu Jintao
and Premier Wen Jiabao have pledged a cleanup. They're facing
pressure from a growing middle class that is protesting both
pollution and the official corruption that sometimes goes with it.
After thousands of protestors took to the streets last year in the
southern seaport city of Xiamen, the government scrapped plans for a
chemical plant. In May, residents in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan
Province, demonstrated against a petrochemical plant under
construction by the state-owned oil company PetroChina. For the first
time ever, environmental and energy-saving targets have been
incorporated into the nation's five-year economic plans.

But Beijing is having a hard time persuading local party bosses to
value environmental stewardship over economic growth. Deng's reforms
pushed decision-making to local levels, where officials have little
or no incentive to heed antipollution regulations. Polluting
companies "provide jobs and create tax revenues as well as personal
payoffs," wrote scholar Zhang Zhongxiang in an article last year in
the Far Eastern Economic Review. Shutting them down could create
local unrest, he notes, as companies go out of business and people
are thrown out of work.

Which brings us to the main problem: China's political system. For
all their faults, democracies are better able to balance growth and
environmental protection. History shows that as incomes rise and
basic necessities are taken care of, modern societies put a higher
priority on pollution control. Western democracies -- with their
ability to work out compromises among competing interests -- have for
the most part been able to accommodate green priorities without
sacrificing growth.

On the other hand, authoritarian governments that rely largely on
economic growth for their legitimacy aren't as adaptable, or as
accountable for economic externalities like pollution. Think of the
mess discovered in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall,
starting with Chernobyl or the Aral Sea. Many of the non-Chinese
places on the world's "most polluted" lists are located in Ukraine,
Russia, Kazakhstan and other countries in the former Soviet Union.

The Summer Games are meant to recognize China's hard-won new status
as a global economic power. Count us among those who are hoping for a
blue-sky Olympics that will keep the focus on China's progress. Count
us, too, among those who look forward to the day when Chinese
politics is democratic enough to clear the air over the country's
showcase cities.
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