09 April 2008


Parisians rally in support of Tibet.

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a place just by its atmosphere. When I first visited Amsterdam, and saw the light at play with the water in the canals, I understood at once why the Dutch excelled at landscape painting. There’s something brilliant yet humid in the air, as if the whole town were a canvas still drying. In Israel, the light catches the dust in the air and turns everything to gold. No wonder the ancient Hebrews believed that God lived in the sky, yet was everywhere; no wonder they believed no other god could compete with him.

By contrast with those places, the air in Beijing taught me something about politics.

On my first trip to China, a whirlwind 20 hours in Shanghai in 1993, the government had already begun its campaign to host the Olympic Games. Everywhere one looked were posters and billboards with the official mascot, a creepily megacephalic, featherless, almost embryonic rooster, proclaiming, “Let us carry forward the glorious Olympic spirit!” Or something like that.

The bid failed. But the world had been served warning. China wanted to be taken seriously. And China wanted the Games. Not just anywhere — but in Beijing.

A few years later, in June 1997, I visited Beijing. And the very idea of pursuing any athletic activity in that atmosphere struck me as the height of folly. The city’s air would be polluted naturally by dust (rolling in from the Gobi Desert), even were there no automobiles, factory smokestacks, and outdoor barbecues. But there are — and they choke the air. It’s worse in hot weather. Which is, of course, the weather one expects for the Summer Games.

I’m not kidding about the barbecues, by the way. A short time after I left town, the government cracked down on folks who like to cook lamb — fatty, greasy, smoky lamb — in their yards. The result was a noticeable reduction in air pollution. Since fewer Beijingers bicycle nowadays, and more of them drive, the reduction made less difference than it might have.

Not to mention the coal that fuels so much of China’s industry. Western environmentalists already had begun to complain to the Chinese — whose response amounted to, “We have a right to make the same mistakes you did, when you industrialized, a century ago.”

The air is poisonous. But if anyone ever doubted that politics play a role in the decisions of the Olympic Committee, the choice of Beijing for the 2008 Summer Games should settle the matter for good. China, only lightly experimenting with capitalism in 1993, had become an economic powerhouse, the Clinton Administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with the Communist government had taken root, and few if any nations wanted to piss off the Chinese. Even if it meant health risks to athletes. What’s a little asthma, when there’s so much money and prestige at stake?

The torch takes a ride through Paris.

Nobody should be surprised now that political protests have erupted in response to the passing of the Olympic torch through Western capitals. The 2008 Games were politicized to start with, and politicized they will remain. The Chinese government, not accustomed to spontaneous free expression, suspects the complicity of hostile foreign agencies — as if people would protest the oppression of Tibet only if they were paid to do so.

Paris offered the perfect rebuttal to such thinking. During the disastrous, aborted circuit of the torch through town, there were plenty of two-legged protesters, yes, who despite extraordinary security measures and the cynical use of a woman in a wheelchair to carry the torch past the nation’s principal television studios, pretty much obliged the torchbearers to remain inside a bus for most of the route. But there was another kind of protester.

The skies of Paris opened up, with rain, hail and unseasonable sleet and snow on Monday, making it impossible to keep the torch lit. For you see, our air can teach lessons, too — to those who are willing to learn.