Bad Air

The real reason we're obsessed with China's pollution


One of the demonstration sports of this year's Olympics has been grousing about Beijing's pollution, speculating on what air quality will be like tomorrow, asking athletes about their breathing, and otherwise pondering particulates in the air.

There's certainly no doubt that Beijing's air is gross. Yesterday was a pretty good day, but according to the World Bank, the city's air quality is much worse than Athens or Barcelona on average, with about twice as much particulate matter in the air as both those former hosts of the Games. Pulmonologist Dr. Janis Schaeffer says Beijing's air quality is 30 percent worse than famously smoggy Los Angeles.

Even as they make grave faces about the problems air pollution has caused, commentators marvel at the efficiency and thoroughness of the preparation for this year's Games, unlike the nail-biting delays and general bumbling in Athens four years ago. How beautiful the Bird's Nest stadium is! What a tremendous effort for the opening ceremonies!

In the big cities, their skyscrapers and malls look just like ours—maybe a little better. In the industrial areas, things look like our country once did, when we were poor and burned coal to get the energy to build things and keep ourselves warm.

The millions who walk among skyscrapers, choking on the foul air but otherwise prospering, are part of the same system that includes Badui, a rural town in western China. "Badui is known locally as the 'village of dunces,'" Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent column. "That's because of the large number of mentally retarded people here—as well as the profusion of birth defects, skin rashes and physical deformities."

The defects are probably caused by drinking water contaminated by a nearby fertilizer factory. "Even if you're afraid, you have to drink," Zhou Genger, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is mentally retarded and has a hunchback, told Kristof. (His description of the village brings to mind Ursula K. LeGuin's haunting—and much anthologized—short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which paints a picture of a hypothetical place where the happiness of an entire people rests on the wretchedness of a single blameless child, confined in a cellar broom closet.)

The fact is, the economic development that dirties China's air and occasionally pulls entire villages down into horrifying idiocy and squalor also lifts tens of millions of people a year out of poverty and into the middle class. A new study forecasts 30 to 40 million Chinese joining the ranks of those with incomes of between $6,000 and $30,000 every year for the next two decades.

In this, China looks like America once did. Growing fast, getting things done the quick and dirty way. While we may not be entirely comfortable gazing at this modern iteration of our industrial era selves, we should understand the tradeoffs, even if we're relieved not to have to make them anymore.

But every time things in China seemed reassuringly normal, or just pleasingly exotic, something comes across the wires that is so bafflingly far from our experience of the world that we can't quite comprehend it.

In China, the decisions that keep progress rolling are sometimes the same decisions that throw people off their land with little or no compensation. Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, applied for permits to protest being evicted from the homes in 2001 during the Olympics. Instead of permits, the septuagenarian women won a year of "reeducation-through-labor" in one of China's infamous camps.

Or consider the stories behind the elegant and impressive opening ceremonies. After the broadcast was over, word trickled out about small dishonesties: perhaps the fireworks were tweaked for TV viewers, perhaps the angelic little girl singing "Ode to the Motherland" was really lip-synching to a slightly less attractive girl's voice. But these are small things, and easily forgiven in the name of showmanship.

Then there's this: Filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who directed the ceremony, recently told the Guangzhou weekly newspaper Southern Weekend that only communist North Korea could have done a better job.

"North Korea is No. 1 in the world when it comes to uniformity," he said. "They are uniform beyond belief! These kind of traditional synchronized movements result in a sense of beauty. We Chinese are able to achieve this as well. Through hard training and strict discipline."

Pyongyang holds mass games every year that include such pageantry as 100,000 people moving in lockstep.

From Zhang's perspective, envy of the North Koreans is only natural. After all, he had to settle for a barely adequate three months of 16-hour workdays from his troupe of 2,200 of some of China's best martial artists. He had a mere 900 performers crouching under 40-pound boxes for such long stretches of time that they had to wear adult diapers. He could only keep his cast of thousands on their feet for a mere 51 hours in the summer heat and a downpour during a two-day rehearsal.

All of which suggests another explanation for why we keep harping on China's dirty air. Human beings have long condemned other tribes as unclean (think Christians vs. Jews vs. Muslims, for a relatively recent example)—groups whose standards and rituals are different than ours make us profoundly uncomfortable and the language of contamination is handy for articulating that sense.

We're taught that it's unacceptable to make judgments about the superiority of one culture over another, so we fill that void with endless chatter about the filthy Beijing air. This is easier and more pleasant than grappling with what it means to be standing in a city that looks like New York but where the people have an utterly different conception of human rights.

At the same time, we're grateful for this one point of superiority. By nattering on about the filthy air, we're quietly reassuring ourselves that there are areas where we're still number one. Our model, which is blessedly free from the ingredient of North Korea-envy, is still better at some things. For now.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.