The Olympic torch is struggling its way
toward Beijing, dogged everywhere by protestors unhappy at
China's militant response to civil unrest in Tibet.
Back in Beijing, the government faces its own
more practical struggle to prepare for the torch's arrival. The
city-one of the world's most polluted-has begun what could be
the biggest clean-up operation in history, post-war scenarios
When Beijing was awarded the Olympic Games
back in 2001, it committed itself to providing a clean
environment for athletes and visitors. But since then, Beijing
has become ever more choked with the dirt, dust and smog that
has always accompanied breakneck industrial growth.
For 19 days this year, from the initial
events Aug. 6 to the closing ceremony Aug. 24, Beijing wants to
provide its visitors with unusually fresh air. The number of
vehicles on the road will be halved, the city's myriad
construction sites will be idled, thousands of old buses will
be pulled out of service and industries all around the capital
and well beyond will face restrictions.
Dozens of small steelmaking operations will
be affected in Hebei province, which almost surrounds Beijing,
but one of the biggest casualties has been Shougang Iron &
Steel Group, the steel mill in Beijing's western suburbs once
called the capital's worst polluter. Half of its capacity has
already been moved out of town to a new site, while a cut in
power supply before and during the Olympics will force what's
left to drastically cut production. Tangshan Iron & Steel
Co. Ltd., another major plant about 250 kilometers (155 miles)
east of Beijing, probably will also face some restrictions. In
fact, industries across a large sweep of northeastern China
could receive official orders to close or cut production during
the next few months.
The transport networks also are expected to
be snarled because Beijing wants to reduce freight traffic in
the vicinity. But the capital's location means it is a major
hub for the region. Tianjin, the major port city, lies just
down the rail tracks, so any material destined for shipment
might have difficulty getting there. In fact, it is already
having an impact on the market as nervous traders buy up stock
in anticipation of supply difficulties in coming months.
The scale of the clampdown-possibly affecting
diverse industries across at least four provinces-testifies to
China's nervousness about the Olympic Games and its commitment
to doing everything necessary to make them a success.
The measures also need to be put in context.
China has already embarked on a pretty serious quest to cut
down on energy-intensive, high-polluting enterprises. The drive
to consolidate China's steel industry, for example, is
accelerating this year, as are measures to forcibly shut down
smaller steel mills. More than a fifth of China's annual steel
production of 489 million tonnes comes from Hebei, which is
home to much of the capacity the government has earmarked for
elimination. Previous attempts to get rid of this production
have fallen flat, but there are signs that things are getting
more serious this year. (There are reports the government is
now prepared to pay mills to stay out of business.)
Both trends are intended to create a more
disciplined steel industry as well as to shut down the older,
dirtier and more reckless producers. But even here there is
something about China's relationship with the outside world and
its reputation. The country's commitment to the Olympics is
about impressing the international community. Its measures to
rein in the steel industry are partly driven by a desire not to
raise the hackles of its trading partners.
The surge in Chinese exports over the past
few years has angered steel producers around the world, who
fear the damage China's exports could wreak on world markets if
left unchecked. Numerous suits against allegedly damaging
Chinese exports are already lined up around the world. China
doesn't want to get bogged down defending them, even if its
steel industry argues that 10 percent of output for exports is
not excessive, so on trade policy China is taking a practical
path in the face of attacks from overseas. On human rights and
Tibet, Beijing has largely batted away international criticism.
But the Olympics remains a hugely sensitive area.
Back in the mid-1990s, the International
Olympic Committee's failure to award Beijing the
millennium-year games was seen as a deliberate slight. Since
2001, when the city was awarded the right to host this year's
event, China's rulers have cloaked the Games in nationalism.
The event is all about showcasing China's modern coming of age
celebrating the massive achievements of the past
quarter-century and marking the emergence of the country as a
21st-Century power. With the Games elevated to such importance
in the national psyche, it's no wonder they are going to
extraordinary lengths to prioritize sport over industry-for the
next few months, at least.