IN The First Circle, Alexander Solzhenitsyn has political prisoners in Stalin’s gulag tell a story about Moscow’s hellish Butyrka prison. One day, a young captain takes the emaciated inmates of cell 72 to a version of paradise. Barbers spray them with eau de Cologne, laundresses dress them in silk and chefs provide them with their first decent meal in years. When they go back, they find the authorities have painted their cell in bright colours. Previously forbidden books and packets of cigarettes are scattered around the room. In place of the four-gallon slop bucket is a gleaming toilet.
The prisoners cannot understand their good fortune until the guards usher in a ‘Mrs R’, an American ‘lady of great shrewdness and progressive views’ who is clearly meant to be Eleanor Roosevelt. The governor tells her that they are not dissidents but rapists and murderers the Communist party of the Soviet Union in its magnanimity has decided to rehabilitate rather than execute. She does not ask to inspect any of the other cells and leaves, ‘convinced of the falsehood of the allegations spread by malicious scaremongers in the West’.
As soon as she has gone, the prisoners’ lice-infested rags and four-gallon slop bucket return.
The Communist party of China has beautified Beijing for the Olympics. The Organising Committee for the games has ordered one million cars from the road and told factories to shut down, so foreigners will believe that one of the most polluted cities on earth can hold ‘the green Olympics’.
The president of the Olympic Committee gabbled his appreciation. Jacques Rogge, a sports’ bureaucrat who appears to have learnt nothing from the 20th century, lauded China’s ‘extraordinary’ efforts. The statistics proved the authorities had done everything that ‘was humanely possible’, and the statistics never lie.
Greenpeace, so harsh on democratic countries, was as excessive in its praise. After registering a few reservations, it declared the dictatorship’s work was ‘tremendous’ and ‘positively unique’. Beijing was providing ‘important lessons to other Chinese cities’.
The eyebrows of Jonathan Fenby, who has just published The Penguin History of Modern China, shot up at that. When the games are over, the factories will reopen, he said. The Olympics will have secured a few long-term benefits – more homes and workplaces will burn gas rather than coal – but when set against China’s vast pollution problem these gains will be tiny.
As every serious writer knows, the legitimacy of the dictatorship rests on its ability to deliver ever-rising living standards now that its Marxism is dead. Environmental concerns will always be trumped by the party’s survival instinct. Thus, President Hu Jintao reverses a programme to close coal mines. He has to, an official tells Der Spiegel, because China’s inefficient industries ‘need seven times the resources of Japan, almost six times the resources of the US and almost three times the resources used by India’. Thus, when the leaders of the G8 announce a wish to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Hu and India’s leaders see a plot by the rich West to handicap Asian rivals and refuse to accept the target.
Because the communism of Stalin and Mao is dead, however, the scale of the catastrophe need not be a secret circulated only in samizdat pamphlets. There are voices within China free to argue that the country is ignoring her own as well as the world’s long-term interests. Pan Yue, minister of the environment, warned in 2005 that the economic miracle ‘will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace’, and he had the evidence to back up his claim.
China has 16 of the world’s 20 filthiest cities. The Gobi desert is expanding at a rate of 1,900 square miles a year because of deforestation and over-farming. Approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 of them suffer severe shortages. The state-run Xinhua news agency reports that pollution is poisoning the aquifers. Eighty per cent of the sewage dumped into the Yangtze is untreated. Effluent, human and industrial, has driven one third of the native species of the Yellow River to extinction. About 190 million Chinese are sick from drinking contaminated water, cancer rates are rising and there are about 1,000 demonstrations a week against the effects of pollution.
The gullible admire dictatorships because they think the great leader and his politburo can cut through objections and force the recalcitrant to obey orders, and we have had no shortage of fantasies about the better China that would come if only the party embraced greenery.
In The River Runs Black, a book every environmentalist needs to read, Elizabeth C Economy points out that the fantasies can never be realised. Even if the centre wanted to change policy, its writ does not run in the provinces. Local officials are in the pocket of or related to factory owners and ignore inconvenient decrees. If the courts, the press or doctors in local hospitals complain, they silence them. Change is impossible without democratic reform – which is as far away as ever.
Solzhenitsyn’s Mrs R was incapable of believing the worst and preferred to live in a daydream. Stalin’s goons did not need to fool her because she had already fooled herself. Today it is just about possible to imagine rich, post-industrial societies switching to renewable energy and nuclear power, although optimists should note the Republicans’ success in using Obama’s refusal to allow offshore oil drilling against him. But it is inconceivable that the emerging powers of China and India will abandon fossil fuels when there are no cheap options.
Rather than despair, not only the International Olympic Committee and Greenpeace but also Western governments and the European Union pretend that the Potemkin Olympic village in Beijing heralds a new China, and miss the blackened rivers and skies beyond.
As the planet warms, I’m damned if I can see an alternative to despair, but I do know that wishful thinking isn’t it.