With the Olympics finishing, the headlines have turned mostly from
China's problems, Bible confiscation, lip synching and pollution to
what the games are truly about; the beauty of athletic competition,
Michael Phelps' eight gold medals, the stunning speed of Usain
"Lightning" Bolt. Yet before the games began, most headlines focused on
the problems surrounding the games, most notably, pollution.
The New Scientist asked bluntly "Is Beijing's air safe to breathe?", The San Francisco Chronicle headline declared "Excitement and smog are in the air as Beijing's party starts" while the Guardian
told readers that the "IOC risks legal action over smog". As the
Olympics opened, Western worry over Chinese pollution reached a level
nearing the concerns over Tibetan protesters a few months earlier. Yet
for all the hand wringing in the Western media over the state of the
air our athletes were subjected to, and that Beijing residents must
deal with year round, is how much responsibility do we in the West bear
for the haze that has settled over the Olympics?
What's that you say? You have no responsibility for the air quality
in China? Well, partly you may be right, but chances are you are as
guilty as I am.
Look into the bottom of your shopping cart on a weekly basis and throughout your home and you will likely find Made in China
stamped across more than a few items. Cheap Chinese goods have been
fueling the high standard of living in the West for years. My first DVD
player, made in Japan, cost several hundred dollars. When the DVD
player stopped working a few months back, it was quickly replaced by a
new model with more features for less than $40. Where was it made? Yep,
that's right, China.
Manufacturing in America, Canada, Britain and Australia has been
shipped offshore to China steadily over the last few decades. As our
inefficient and dirty industries have shut down, China has picked up
the slack and in some cases, our old dirty factories. My father, a
boilermaker by trade, was given the opportunity during the 1990s to
help ship factories from Canada to China. Factories too old and
inefficient to operate here were being dismantled and shipped to China
A friend of mine who dabbles in photography as a hobby tells of
former employees of film-making giant Kodak Eastman watching their old
plant be demolished, while snapping pictures or video of the
proceedings on their digital cameras and cellphones, many likely made
in China. Our addiction to inexpensive gadgets, throw-away housewares
and prices that go down rather than up for electronics and computers
have all helped to sully the air that hangs over China's capital. Each
of us could try to do our part to clear the air in Beijing by
purchasing fewer goods from China's pollution pumping sweatshops, but
few of us consider pollution in a foreign country or even jobs in our
own when eyeing up a $35 DVD player.
Are there solutions from governments, Western governments, that is?
Some economists think so. In a report issued in March 2008, Jeff Rubin,
an economist with CIBC World Markets, talked of a carbon tariff being
imposed on goods from developing countries such as China and India. In
an article in the Toronto Star, Rubin said "It becomes absurdly
quixotic to ban coal plants in North America while at the same time
China's got 570 coal plants slated to go into production between now
and 2012, 30 plants between now and the Olympics." According to Rubin,
imposing a carbon tax would also bring manufacturing jobs back to North
American shores. The higher cost of oil, plus what is essentially a tax
on pollution, would benefit industries in North American such as glass,
printing and machinery, says Rubin.
The idea reminds me of a conversation I had with a farmer protesting
government regulation. The farmer asked why he should be banned from
certain practices, such as the use of certain chemical pesticides and
herbicides, while imports from other countries still using those same
products were freely allowed to enter the country and be sold for a
cheaper price. We have done the same thing with our manufacturing and
"dirty" industries in the West. We have demanded efficiency, high wages
and strong government regulation and driven them offshore to China. The
jobs have left, so has the pollution and now we buy our goods from
China. The workshop of the world is not only the home of cheap labour;
it is also the home of cheap and dirty energy and few environmental
So is the solution to emulate China and let loose on environmental
and labour controls? Hardly, but neither is it a solution to export
jobs and pollution overseas, leaving Western economies to provide
nothing but "services". The current position not only harms the natural
environment and national job markets, but leaves Western nations unable
to manufacture much of anything, a situation that leaves us all
beholden to China. Backers of the status quo will argue that the market
will decide, yet the current situation of strong regulation for
domestic manufacturers and none for imports means Western industry is
fighting against Chinese industry with one hand tied behind its back.
The status quo is not working. As Ronald Reagan once famously said
"Status quo, you know, is Latin for 'the mess we're in.'" It is time
for fresh thinking on economic dealings with China.
Brian Lilley is Ottawa Bureau Chief for Newstalk 1010 CFRB in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal.