Socialist Alternative

China: The Green Olympics?

Published on

This article is from the forthcoming pamphlet “China’s Olympic Gamble” – from

The Beijing Olympic Games have been billed as the “Green Olympics.” This slogan was used by the Chinese regime in its successful bid for the games in 2001, and was backed up by ambitious commitments to improve air and water quality in the Chinese capital. But this was always going to be a tall order. Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. 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. This use of temporary expedients – “smog and mirrors” in the words of one blogger – is characteristic of the Chinese regime. China faces the most terrifying ecological crisis in the world. There are no parallels in peacetime for such monumental degradation of a country’s natural resources, water and land.

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 July 20 until September, when the Olympics and Paralympic Games have finished, 1.5 million cars will be ordered off the city’s roads in order to thin out the level of airborne toxins. The idea of “car free” days is not new – Athens and other European cities have adopted similar limits on car usage. Millions of trees have been planted for the Olympics, especially in the vicinity of the capital’s international airport to greet new arrivals. But environmentalists are divided over the benefits of this, given the additional strain it places on Beijing’s scarce water resources.

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. But as the website Wired commented, “Neighboring cities cheerfully rolled out the welcome mat for the capital’s filthiest factories, then spewed record amounts of coal smoke into the region’s skies to keep them humming.” Up to 70 percent 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. “Extensive use of coal, the city’s geographical location and a growing number of motor vehicles means the pace of improvement in Beijing’s air quality is slow,” concluded a report from the United Nations Environment Program. This 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 (WHO) guidelines. Other types of air pollution – sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide – rose or failed to improve during 2006 following three years of declines.

Health concerns led Haile Gebrselassie, the men’s marathon world record-holder, who is asthmatic, to pull out of that event, although he still intended to compete in the 10,000 meters in Beijing. “The pollution in China is a threat to my health and it would be difficult for me to run 42 km in my current condition,” he announced. The US Olympic team announced it would bring 1,000 specially designed air pollution masks to Beijing. In their new attire the team looked like “a gathering of Darth Vaders”, according to one US athlete.

Yet Beijing’s 17 million inhabitants must breath this air every day, not just during a three-week international competition. While other infamously polluted metropolises like Mexico City and Los Angeles have an average air pollution index of 66 and 44 respectively, Beijing has sometimes recorded figures above 300, at which point the air becomes “hazardous.” For a child exposed to this level of airborne toxins, it is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day! Research by Peking University environmental science professors calculated that particulate pollution caused 25,000 deaths in Beijing in 2002 alone, and the loss of 7.2 percent of the city’s GDP. According to a 2006 survey of the 84 major cities in China by the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Beijing had the fewest number of days attaining the national air quality standard – and its air quality was even worse in 2007.

A third of the city’s particulate dust comes from roughly 3,000 construction sites, which work around the clock in Chinese cities. The low-paid migrant workers who work on and in many cases also live on these sites are not provided with Olympic-style gas masks. 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. When car ownership broke through the 3 million mark in 2007, Beijing’s mayor, Wang Qishan, said this symbolised the city’s “prosperous and fast development”. But respondents in a survey took another view, with 55 percent saying it was “bad news” and 31 percent fearing the city’s pollution problems would get worse.

The average car in the United States causes over 273 kilograms of air pollution annually according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yet environmental standards for car engines in China are lower than in the US and considerably lower than those in Europe. Recent tests found emission levels of Chinese cars to be on a par with cars used in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s; these cars emit 10-20 times more pollution than cars currently used in Western countries. According to a joint Chinese-US study, 40 percent of cars and 70 percent of taxis in Beijing fail to meet the most basic Western emission standards. To make matters worse, the fastest growing segment of the Chinese car market is for the really big polluters – fuel-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and luxury models. Sales of these vehicles rose by 50 percent in 2007, compared to overall market growth of 20 percent. This trend tells us a lot about China’s domestic market: it is skewed towards a small, relatively affluent minority, while the vast majority are too poor to engage in Western-style consumerism.

Car culture

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. Motor vehicles are the single biggest source of greenhouse gases worldwide and they now cause between 70 to 80 percent of air pollution in Chinese cities, pollution that claims 750,000 lives a year according to a 2007 report produced jointly by the World Bank and the Chinese government. Yet the global motor giants, welcomed with open arms by the same 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.

These companies and others such as oil companies whose fate is tied to automobile production, have built up a powerful web of interests with Chinese officials at city, provincial and national level, and with the state-owned companies linked to them. As one car industry analyst put it, “The Chinese government has made no secret of its intention to develop a car culture and a car industry. All of the forces are working together.” The government welcomes car companies as a source of investment, jobs and technology, and its policies have been designed accordingly. “Highways crisscross the country, and ancient city centers have been bulldozed to make way for car-friendly avenues,” China Daily commented.

Investment in railways, by far the most environmentally friendly means of mass transportation, has been dwarfed by a frenetic road-building programme. Official statistics show that 6,500 km of new railways were built in the last five years. But this compares to 4,400 km of new six-lane expressways built in 2006 alone, and a further 8,300 km of expressways in 2007. One of the reasons for this lopsided emphasis on road-building is that almost all China’s expressways are toll roads, mainly financed by private companies under contract to provincial governments. More recently even the railways are being opened to private capital, but on a much smaller scale. As for the boom in toll roads, in many parts of the country local governments have lost control of this process. The National Audit Office investigated 100 roads in 18 provinces and discovered that 158 illegal toll stations had been erected, which together had collected in 14.9 billion yuan ($2.1 billion) in unlawful charges by the end of 2005.

No wonder motor industry executives are all smiles. The growth of China’s vehicle market has been spectacular: 300 percent in just six years. The number of private cars rose from six million in the year 2000, to 32.4 million in 2007. WTO membership since 2001 has been crucial to this development, by lowering import tariffs and opening China more extensively to the global car giants. U.S., European, Japanese and Korean companies now account for 70 percent of domestic sales. China’s soaring car usage is itself a significant influence on the global price of oil, which increased five-fold between 2003-08. China is the world’s second largest oil importer and motor vehicles now consume over half its imported oil. They consumed 65.6 million tons of oil in the year 2000, which by the year 2010 will have doubled to 138 million tons of oil annually, rising to 256 million tons by 2020 (China Daily, October 6, 2004).

As the Washington Post pointed out, “the ravenous appetite of the automobile is one reason Beijing has dispatched engineers and deal makers from Siberia to Angola to Indonesia in search of new 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.

The effects in terms of air pollution and traffic congestion are simply staggering and not just in Beijing of course. The mayor of the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, China’s richest city, actually appealed to its people to stop buying cars. “Although I have no legal power to do this, I am asking everyone not to buy cars,” he told a public meeting in July 2007. Beijing’s city planners have also expressed frustration: “The core of the traffic problem in Beijing is that the growth in road construction is out of step with the increase in vehicles. The number of vehicles can increase by the thousands on just one day but we cannot build a new road in the same time,” exclaimed Cheng Xianghui, a member of the Beijing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The city only has parking space for 1.4 million of its more than 3 million cars.

Not only are the people of Beijing being poisoned; its traffic now moves at less than half the speed it did in the 1980s – just 11 kilometres an hour during peak periods. China Daily bemoaned the fact that, “Beijing’s roads are like an enormous parking lot at rush hour. People complain that riding a bicycle is often faster than driving a car.” When the world’s top motor executives came to the city in April 2008 for the Beijing Auto Show they got a taste of the mayhem their companies have created. The capital’s legendary gridlock turned what is normally a half-hour ride to the exhibition centre into a two-hour crawl. Some of the executives, Osamu Masuko of Mitsubishi Motors and Carlos Ghosn of Renault among them, opted to get out of their limousines in heavy rain and walk the last mile of the way!

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. Under heavy pressure to clean-up their act, motor companies themselves are bringing forward plans for more petroleum-electric “hybrid” engines and pure electric engines, as well as greater use of biofuels. All these developments, however, are designed to perpetuate today’s system of mass car usage rather than offer a real alternative. Even a hypothetical “new epoch” of wholly electric cars would not improve the overall picture given that fossil fuels still account for 66 percent of global electricity output. And, as in China, the fastest growing source of electricity worldwide is also the worst environmental offender: coal. Meanwhile biofuels such as ethanol are proving to be disaster on the basis of the capitalist mode of production for profit. Food crops are being displaced by more profitable biofuel production and the result is starvation in some parts of the neo-colonial world. Nor does this spare the environment – ethanol made from some crops such as palm oil actually produces more greenhouse gases than petrol or diesel.

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 duplicative competition among 120 China-based car companies, many of which will inevitably close down as the market becomes more concentrated, the resources and accumulated labour skills of this industry should be pooled and channeled into a massive expansion of safe, cheap and efficient public transport.

The main cause of exploding car ownership in China is the lack of efficient public transport systems in most cities. This sector has largely missed out on the massive investment programmes of recent years, while money has been ploughed into industrial parks and property development. The situation in Beijing is among the worst in the country. A trip through the city on one of its many overcrowded buses is an ordeal, especially when its ubiquitous traffic jams mean standing, packed like sardines, for ages without moving. Not surprisingly, Beijing scored near the bottom of a survey of 287 Chinese cities in the category of transport satisfaction in a 2006 Report on the Quality of Urban Life. The capital’s subway train network is also chronically under-dimensioned. It has just five subway lines with 83 stations (the fifth subway line was opened in 2007 as part of the city’s pre-Olympic makeover) to service 17 million inhabitants. New York, with a population of 8.2 million, has 26 subway lines and 468 stations. While the New York subway transports 6.4 million passengers daily, Beijing only manages 2.2 million.

“In New York City, public transport shares 76 percent of the total traffic flow. The number is 91, 40 and 70 percent in Tokyo, London and Paris, respectively. But in Beijing it’s still 29 percent,” a transport expert told China Daily (28 May 2007). Even the planned expansion of the subway system – adding six new lines by 2012 – will still only raise the proportion of Beijing residents using public transport to 45 percent.

In place of a serious strategy to turn this situation around, officials in Beijing have resorted to a series of stopgap measures mostly for reasons of political expedience – to avoid at all costs an Olympic fiasco. Hence all the tree-planting, the car-free days, and the “cloud-seeding” (shooting up rockets to cause rain that flushes out air pollutants). And if all else fails, Chinese officials have a tried and tested method for resolving difficult problems: fiddling the statistics! The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau has been accused of removing monitoring sites from areas with poor air quality and changing the basis upon which air pollution is measured in order to boost the number of so-called ‘blue sky days’.

China and global warming

The United Nations’ panel on climate change has issued warnings that unless the amount of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere are stabilised in the next eight years, a rise in temperatures to “disastrous” levels will be unavoidable. Yet, based on massively increased consumption of fossil fuels to power its hugely wasteful industries and traffic jams, China has overtaken the United States to become the world’s “biggest polluter” and main driver of climate change.

China already suffers more natural disasters than any other country and their frequency is rising as a result of population growth, urbanization, desertification and not least, climate change. The shrinking of the polar ice caps is recognised as a major climate threat leading to higher global temperatures and rising sea levels. But the glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as the world’s “third pole,” are also shrinking at the alarming rate of seven percent a year. “The melting glacier will ultimately trigger more droughts, expand desertification and increase sandstorms,” warned a report in Xinhua. Glacial retreat is responsible for the disappearance of thousands of lakes in mountainous regions of western China, while desert now accounts for 27.6 percent of the country’s territory, mostly in northern and northwestern regions. Environmental degradation and loss of farmland in these regions, with their concentration of non-Han peoples, is one factor fueling ethnic tensions and demands for greater autonomy or independence.

In southern China however the effects will be the opposite: an increase in monsoon rains, severe floods and tropical storms. Tens of millions of people are effected by flooding every year. June 2008 saw the heaviest rainfall for 50 years in provinces including Anhui, Guangdong and Hunan. A report from the State Oceanic Administration has warned that coastal metropolises such as Shanghai and Guangzhou will encounter “unimaginable challenges” if the oceans keep rising. Scientists warn that Shanghai could be submerged by 2050. In the Spring of 2007, the Chinese regime released its first national assessment report on climate change, predicting a fall in precipitation of 30 percent in three of China’s seven major river regions – around the Huai, Liao, and Hai rivers – in northern China. This in turn would lead to a 37 percent reduction in wheat, rice and corn yields in the second half of the century due to higher temperatures. China’s ability to feed itself, already under strain, faces complete breakdown on the basis of such a scenario.

The global fallout will also be devastating. 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 under the – wholly inadequate – Kyoto Protocol. China’s emissions are set to increase by about 2.3 billion tonnes over the next five years, dwarfing the 1.7 billion tonnes in cutbacks imposed on 37 rich countries, including the United States, under Kyoto rules.

Socialists have consistently argued that capitalist “solutions” such as Kyoto are incapable of stopping global warming. This is because they are based upon “free market” mechanisms such as the ineffectual and often fraudulent trade in emission rights. They are also dogged by governmental infighting which is inevitable on the basis of capitalism – a system of cutthroat rivalry in which each government seeks advantages for its own companies. Demands from governments in Europe and America that China and other newly industrialising nations accept tougher limits on carbon emissions have been attacked by some Asian governments as “green imperialism.” There is some truth to this accusation. The hypocrisy of governments in the rich capitalist states knows no limits – their own companies are behind much of China’s pollution. “Responsibility for China’s soaring emissions lies not just in Beijing but also in Washington, Brussels and Tokyo,” explained Greenpeace UK director John Sauven, pointing to the mass relocation of Western industry. “All we’ve done is export a great slice of the West’s carbon footprint to China, and today we see the result,” he said.

Wasteful industry

The Chinese economy has grown at an annual rate of ten percent for almost a decade. But this has been achieved at a colossal cost in terms of human and natural resources. As Pan Yue, SEPA’s second in command pointed out, “We are using too many raw materials to sustain this growth. To produce goods worth $10,000, for example, we need seven times more resources than Japan, nearly six times more than the United States and, perhaps most embarrassing, nearly three times more than India.” [Spiegel, 7 March 2005] China’s steel industry, for example, consumes 16 percent of the country’s electrical power, compared to 10 percent for all China’s households put together. The main fuel for Chinese power plants is coal – 76 percent of the total – which causes acid rain, smog, respiratory diseases and of course global warming. Every week a new coal-fired power station comes into service somewhere in China. Given that it is the world’s biggest coal producer, with estimated reserves of 5.5 trillion tons, this trend is set to continue.

Chinese industry and agriculture is also hugely wasteful of water, requiring ten times more water than Japan and six times more than South Korea to produce one unit of gross domestic product. The country is rapidly approaching crunch time for water supplies. Ma Jun, a leading water expert, warns that several cities in the northeast of China, including Beijing, could run out of water in five to seven years from now. The Xinhua news agency predicts that Beijing will reach crisis point in 2010, when its population will outstrip its water supplies by around three million people. The Gobi desert, which is advancing, is just 220 km from Beijing – there have even been discussions about moving the Chinese capital. Again, a short-term ‘fix’ will be applied during the Olympics by pumping the best quality water from neighbouring provinces such as Hebei and Shaanxi. An estimated 300 million cubic metres of water from these provinces will be used to flush out polluted and stagnant rivers and lakes in central Beijing for the benefit of Olympic tourists. Yet Hebei suffers from one of the most acute water shortages of any province following a decade-long drought. This policy has understandably drawn criticism from the ‘donor’ provinces. “In order to preserve the quality of Beijing’s water we have to close all our factories. But we still need to live. So I say the government needs to compensate Shaanxi,” protested the former Communist party boss of Shanxi province, An Qiyuan.

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.

Latest articles


New Popular Front Blocks Far Right in France — For Now

The far right failed to win a majority in the French general election held over two weekends (June 30 / July 7), and the...

Half The World Is Voting This Year, & Incumbents Are In Trouble

This November, millions of Americans will vote in a presidential election where we’re expected to choose between two candidates nobody wanted. For all of...

Tories CRUSHED In British General Election

The working class in England, Scotland and Wales have just wiped the floor with the Tories (Conservative Party). With votes still being counted, the...

European Farmer Protests Shake The Political Establishment

Farmer protests have raged across Europe since last December, capturing headlines as farmers have descended onto Brussels in thousands of tractors, sprayed liquid manure...