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Olympic Aftermath - Beijing, China, And the Environment

Sep 11, 2008
With the post-Olympic headlines understandably focused on the sporting achievements of the likes of Usain Bolt and his domination of the sprint events, or team G.B's new record gold medal tally, it is perhaps expected that that which dominated media coverage before the event - the environmental policy of Beijing - has fallen temporarily to the sidelines.

But talk before and during the games signaled Beijing as a particularly special Olympics because of the political resonance of the event; the various political divisions that many see as characterising China as a nation state, including their human rights record, their dominance in trade, and their continuing commitment to the 'One Party State'. Indeed it has been difficult over the last year to avoid discussion of the integrity of Beijing and the Chinese government, and whether their domestic and international policies represent a nation that was worthy of holding an international event with the stature of the Olympics.

That argument manifested itself quite cogently in the months before the event, in the coverage of the nation's environmental efforts, mostly because journalists could make an obvious connection between Chinese national policy and the health of the Olympic athletes, rendering the broader political interest in the games as directly relative to the sport itself.

Armed with the humanist metaphor of the Olympic games and its association with fairness, equality of opportunity and the quest for human excellence, the world's media set about a deconstruction of China's ideologies and intentions, using the environment as its motif; the most fashionable topics on the planet, CO2 emissions, global warming, and climate change, were a fitting combination of concepts that could be used to attack a nation that many believe to be unethical on a number of fronts.

That began in earnest with discussions on the measures that Beijing had put in place since its Olympic bid in 2001, of which a majority of Western journalists deemed there were little; indeed many claim that it was only in the short term that China has made any difference to its environmental performance, when it closed hundreds of harmful factories and removed an estimated 1.5m cars from its roads.

Critics simply claimed that it was 'too little, too late', and used environmental policy as a case in point for what they believe to be China's disregard for individual and national welfare, and the international community at large. For skeptics, it was a key battle that China had lost; they had not used the Olympics as a way to develop sustainable infrastructures for the improvement of the nation's environment and ecosystems, just as it had not matched its successful Olympic bid with a more co-operative foreign or human rights policy, as critics argued they had shown over Tibet, of which there was much media coverage in the countdown to the games.

What Beijing 2008 has shown us, then, is that the environment is just as important as a concept as it is in reality; the importance of climate change, global warming and CO2 emissions to the media and the general public at large has grown so considerably that it is the chief political tool in the discussion, promotion and criticism of countries, companies and politicians.

That combination of the metaphorical and the actual is a powerful combination indeed.
About the Author
Chris Woolfrey is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy, and specializes in environmental issues. He writes for http://www.ecoswitch.com
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