Are foreigners dissing China by noticing the smog?

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After the jump are parts of an intriguing note from Shelly Kraicer of Beijing. He is a Canadian writer and film-festival programmer, based in China for the last four years, who runs a web site on Chinese film, ChineseCinema.org I don't know him personally.

His note is in response to my repeated ."sky is falling" screeds about the disaster of air quality in Beijing nine months before the Olympics. (Note: today, November 16, was a pretty nice day.)

His note raises a question I can't do more than acknowledge at the moment: whether the Western focus on environmental catastrophe in China is, in some way, part of a long process of belittling the Chinese. He recounts the comments of a Chinese media friend:

...who pointed out that the focus on pollution before the Olympics is a phenomenon of the typical inability of the Western press to focus on more than one idea at a time, when they're thinking of China (if at all). ... Now the big idea, Olympics branch, is Pollution Disaster! She pointed out that Athens' big Olympic story was Preparation DIsaster! But since, here, things seem to be generally on schedule, that story is unavailable. So the foul air story is its replacement. I think that what she's describing has an all too predictable undercurrent of looking down from lofty developed Western heights to squalid undeveloped Third World depths ("tut tut, of course they just can't get it right, the way we know we could").

At a strictly logical level, I know that these things are true:

* I personally hope the Olympics turn out to be a big success for China. I'm convinced that the general public here sees them, or has been led to see them, as an occasion of pride for China as a whole, not just "the regime." It would be better for everyone if China ends up feeling happy and successful in its efforts than if it feels embarrassed or, worse, disrespected.

* I genuinely view environmental carnage as Problem Number One for China itself, and as the biggest problem posed by China for the rest of the world. Fewer Chinese people feel as strongly about this because, I think, fewer of them have seen how it is elsewhere.

* And I think that to raise alarms about the air and water in China is fundamentally supportive of the people of China rather than in any way dismissive of them. After all, they are the ones who breathe this air their whole lives.

But I know that more than strict logic is involved in these questions. The note, below, is worth thinking about.

Here is the note:


I am cheered by your focus on the air quality disaster, and was particularly struck by this line:


"But, seriously: how is this not an all-out emergency from the Olympic committee's point of view?"

with which I completely agree. I've been saying something similar to friends and other Chinese acquaintances who will listen, for a few months. I think it's well past the time when things were repairable. It's quite likely heading towards a major embarrassment, with athletes withdrawing, refusing to come, etc.
The instincts of those with power here to provide high profile, showy, one-off fake solutions to intractable problems (bulldozers crushing fake DVDs, an execution to deal with corruption, etc.) are obviously inadequate to address this particular crisis.

But then, last week, I was talking to a friend who works for XInhua (that's another story, she's smart and relatively free-thinking and knows what they write is all lies, but somehow feels comfortable doing it anyway), who pointed out that the focus on pollution before the Olympics is a phenomenon of the typical inability of the Western press to focus on more than one idea at a time, when they're thinking of China (if at all).


So, the big idea was Stalinist repression (pinned down by June 4th in the Western imagination). Now the big idea, Olympics branch, is Pollution Disaster! She pointed out that Athens' big Olympic story was Preparation DIsaster! But since, here, things seem to be generally on schedule, that story is unavailable. So the foul air story is its replacement. I think that what she's describing has an all too predictable undercurrent of looking down from lofty developed Western heights to squalid undeveloped Third World depths ("tut tut, of course they just can't get it right, the way we know we could")
I think she's got something here. Of course, the pollution is real, and terrible, not only for 2008, but for just everyday living here. I'm starting to reevaluate my dedication to bicycling everywhere I go (it's good for my health, but it's bad for my health, now... on balance). But the positioning of the discourse on pollution is suspect, and reinforces a set of ugly structures that keep "us" thinking about "them" in very unhelpful ways.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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