Several years back, I wrote a short piece for The China Beat (subsequently revised and published in the volume China in 2008) about all the accusations of fakery that were swirling around the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The essay sought to provide some postmodern critique of the ways authenticity, mimicry, and forgery have long been used, particularly in the English language media, to disparage China’s rise and its pursuit of modernity. So I was particularly intrigued, once Beijing got the nod to host the 2022 winter games, to see the scandal of fakery being dusted off and re-issued by critics of IOC’s decision to award the games to Beijing over Almaty, in Kazakhstan.
This time, however, the accusations are harder to dismiss as remnants of a Eurocentric intellectual discourse. This time, it’s a much more basic issue. In 2022, the Winter Olympics will likely be conducted, for the first time ever, almost entirely on fake snow. Almaty’s bid committee sought to make this fact a centerpiece of its efforts to sway the IOC in its favor, with the not-so-subtle jab at Beijing underlying its official slogan: “Keeping it Real.” Then we learned that one of the official songs for the Beijing winter games bid, “The Snow and Ice Dance,” was a knock-off version of “Let it Go” from the Disney film Frozen. Fake snow! Fake song! Looks like we’re on our way to another Chinese Olympics! There will undoubtedly be more claims of fakery leading up to the 2022 games, and most of these will be spurious if not entertaining. Already journalists are bemoaning the lack of a tradition of winter sports in China and the likelihood that one will have to be invented and propped up between now and 2022.
But the environmental issues underlying the fake Olympics are serious. In 2008, Beijing spared no expense to produce blue skies during the two weeks of Olympic competition. Factories, power plants, and constructions sites were closed. Cars were taken off the streets. They even seeded the clouds to encourage some dust-dampening rain. And it worked. Those two weeks brought some of the cleanest air China’s capital had seen in decades. Studies revealed significant positive results for the cardiovascular health of Beijing’s citizens after just two weeks of clean air. But since 2008, the air has only gotten worse, and cleaning up the air in the winter, when coal smoke and dust are at their highest concentrations, will be a much bigger challenge.
Probably the bigger problem, though, is the fact that making artificial snow requires a lot of water, which is very rare in northern China. Especially in the winter. “No problem,” say Beijing 2022’s planners. “Plenty of water. Global warming is making the winters wetter, and water is being piped up from the south.” The 2022 Winter Olympics will be a testament to China’s belief that its environmental problems can be solved with technological fixes. The lack of water in Beijing is viewed not as a social or political issue of sustainability vs. excessive development and economic growth. It is viewed as a relatively minor hiccup awaiting the appropriate technology along China’s inevitable path to modernization and prosperity. Hosting the Winter Olympics in the equivalent of a desert will drive the point home: we can conquer nature. No problem.
Then there’s the question of how the venue construction will impact one of Beijing’s two national-level nature reserves: Songshan Nature Preserve. Shortly after the IOC made their announcement, local biologists began to point out on social media (in posts that have since been censored) that part of the alpine skiing venue fell within the boundaries of the reserve. As reported in the journal Nature,
On 1 August, Wang Xi, who recently received his PhD and works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, overlaid maps from the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation report with those from the reserve’s website and posted the result on his Weibo account: both the start and end of the alpine runs fall within the reserve, he found. Xi told Nature’s news team that his main motivation was to spread news of the possible ecological impact on plants there, including three orchid species that are classified at the highest protection level under Beijing’s conservation system. “It’s a chance for the government to connect with the people and talk to each other to solve this problem,” he says. “I am not against the Olympic Games, but they should be carried out in an environmentally friendly way.”
Wang’s post received nearly 250,000 hits, and was forwarded over a thousand times before it was deleted (but here’s another version). Clearly Beijing wants to maintain the appearance of an environmentally friendly Olympics, whatever that might mean for the mega-resort style of development necessitated by hosting the events. But the proximity of the nature reserve presents a test case that will be closely watched by many. Again, from Nature:
Lei Gu, a postdoctoral researcher in evolution and conservation biology at Peking University, says that Songshan is not that important in terms of biodiversity. The bigger problem, he says, is that a government that has been increasingly issuing statements and regulations that emphasize its commitment to environmental sustainability and conservation seems to be backing away from its promises. In May, for example, China’s environment ministry released a notice, signed by ten government agencies, that stated that any development at odds with a reserve’s function is “strictly forbidden”. … Gu and Xi both worry that seeing the strict policies fail in Beijing would send a broader signal to local governments. If Beijing violates Songshan’s reserve, “it will be easier for local governments to give construction projects higher priority than conservation issues”, says Gu. “The real impact is the breaking of Chinese laws and policies on nature reserves.”
Apparently, in order to deal with this problem, authorities have decided to simply adjust the boundaries of the nature reserve (actually making the reserve bigger), so that the Olympic venues fall outside the reserve. Zhang Suzhi, the deputy head of Yanqing county was quoted in the Beijing News saying, “The locations of the Winter Olympic venues are not included in the reserve after the adjustment.” Well, that was easy. No problem.
Questions will no doubt continue to linger. The South China Morning Post reported that “the northern section of the reserve covering the proposed venue sites was still identified on a map on the reserve ‘s website on Friday [August 7th] as a ‘core area’, meaning it was off-limits to all human activity except scientific research.” Meanwhile deputy head Zhang insisted that the adjustment improved the whole situation, improving the region’s “sustainable development” and “ecological preservation”. So, maybe we need to add one more item to our list of Olympic fakery: fake environmentalism.