Days after taking 50 percent of the vehicles off the streets of Beijing to clear up the skies ahead of the Olympic Games a few weeks hence, Chinese authorities announced over the weekend that more “emergency” measures might be in order. A day later, equestrian teams practicing in Hong Kong did so in a thick layer of smog, while a dense white haze drastically cut visibility in Beijing. The capital city’s response was to announce it would temporarily cut down vehicles by 90 percent.
China’s air quality woes provide a picture-perfect metaphor for everything that is wrong with China as well as the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award it the Games. Everything it does is about appearances: providing a semblance of stability, effecting a sham liberalization of the media and making promises of safe, clean air.
The reality behind this approach, however, is that Beijing’s efforts are temporary, strongly putting into doubt the contention that the Beijing Olympics will have long-term positive repercussions on the government’s behavior. Those who argue this, however, fail to understand that China is a big power that continues to act like an adolescent, promising this and that to obtain what it wants, only to break its promises to the international community — or its people — once it has achieved its objectives.
News yesterday that Beijing was breaking a commitment it had made at the WTO to lower tariffs on rice, cotton and sugar is another reminder of how unreliable China is as a stakeholder. China was turning into “a major problem” and was “going back on a lot of its promises,” a diplomat said at the WTO. China gained entry into the world body by making a series of promises. Now that China is a member, it’s starting to break those promises, and good luck to any country that would seek to expel it.
All of this should alarm those who have been hoping for a paradigm shift after the Games. From Chinese activists to Tibetan nationalists, from the victims of Chinese-backed genocide in Darfur to people worldwide consuming potentially deadly Chinese products, the lesson to be learned is that a lot of what China does is temporary, a series of stopgap measures to minimize its humiliation.
It will do the bare minimum to ensure that the Games are successful, but once the Olympians have departed and the media’s glare has shifted elsewhere, Beijing will revert to its old self, just as the millions of cars thronging Beijing’s streets will come out of hiding and once again turn its skies into a choking pall.
This should also serve as a reminder to Taiwanese diplomats and back-channel negotiators seeking to achieve cross-strait rapprochement that Beijing’s promises are not worth the paper they’re written on and that it is just as likely to go back on its word after it has obtained what it wants from Taiwan.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if, once the Olympics began — with KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) and Taiwanese Cabinet officials in attendance — Chinese media were to break their pledge to refer to Taiwanese teams as Zhonghua Taibei (Chinese Taipei) and revert to Zhongguo Taibei (Taipei, China).
Given its precarious position, Taiwan can hardly afford to be fooled. It should heed the already ample number of signals, lest the next time it looks to the skies it finds the smog closing in.