"The quality of preparation, the readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail…have set a gold standard for the future". This is the headline that never was after the International Olympic Committee issued a statement on the Beijing Olympics this week. The Western media frenzy that followed the statement concentrated not on the Chinese capital’s "exceptional" achievements or "stunning venues" but on the infamous Beijing pollution. And boy did they go to town.
Commentators were almost entirely negative, if not downright abusive, about Beijing’s ‘Dirty Olympics’, with lurid tales of "a massive, stinking algae bloom" allegedly swamping the sailing venue in Qingdao and "yellow-tinged smog" over Beijing threatening athletes’ health. Intrepid TV reporters are scouring the streets looking for evidence.
A BBC reporter sneaked in a hand-held detector to test for airborne particles and found that Beijing failed to meet the WHO’s air quality guidelines on six days out of seven. ITV News’s China Correspondent found the atmosphere in the Chinese capital "up to forty times more polluted than London’s". One broadsheet headline asked "Is pollution going to choke the life out of the Beijing Olympics?"
The upshot is that athletes are panicking, from Australian cyclist Stuart O’Grady speaking about the "insane" health risks he and fellow-cyclists face to Ethiopian Olympic gold medalist, world record holder and asthmatic Haile Gebrselassie pulling out of the marathon because he believes Chinese pollution threatens his health. Ironically, the hysteria doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Analysis of data sets taken during test events – including humidity, wind, ozone and particulate matter – showed athletes’ health to be largely unimpaired by environmental conditions. Although the IOC head Hein Verbruggen concedes "a very small number of open issues remain" including air quality, China itself is taking to address the problem: from July 20, half of Beijing’s 3.3 million private cars will be banned for the duration of the Games and bus fares have been cut to discourage car use; 267 companies near Beijing are closing until the end of the Games in order to improve the quality of the air.
None of these measures count for much amongst a sanctimonious Western commentariat because they are not interested in "Beijing’s smog" as a practical problem with practical solutions. Beneath the breathless headlines this week is our own anxiety about the growth of China and our willingness to put the boot into the toxic Chinese economy at any opportunity.
As the New York Times put it in a 10-part series at the end of last year, China is "choking on growth". The possibility that China could become a fully industrialised and urbanised society, with living standards akin to our own, has become the ultimate environmentalist nightmare. It is often concluded that it would be better for the planet if China simply stopped growing.
The problem is that this selfishly sees only the pain and pollution that an industrial revolution brings to a country the size of China and ignores the undoubted and enormous gains to the Chinese people brought about by the concomitant economic prosperity.
If once Western racists dubbed China as the "yellow peril" and Mao’s regime was sometimes called the "red peril", modern China is often viewed as a "green peril".
At the Institute of Ideas conference The Battle for China, which is taking place in London this Saturday (full details, including speakers and readings on the Battle of Ideas website), one focus is to ask "Is China Bashing a new Olympics sport?" This latest panic about pollution would seem to vindicate our fears. It is time to get a grip and congratulate China on its impressive economic growth and its amazing Olympic infrastructural feats, both of which London would do well to emulate rather than demonise.