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 excluded.
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.