When the Olympic flag was unfurled at the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, the Chinese leaders at the scene must have been wondering what the Games would mean to China after the closing ceremonies. The 51 gold medals won by China have probably been enough to ease the pain and frustration of their star athlete Liu Xiang’s sudden departure from the 110-metre hurdles.
This year, the Chinese people have experienced the tragic Sichuan earthquake and the glory of Olympic fanfare, uniting us in sorrow and pain as well as inspiring us with the spirit of international cooperation. With such a dramatic backdrop, it is inevitable that the Chinese people feel a sense of loss after the Olympics. China and its people will need to look for a new cause to unite the country—a cause championed by its leaders and pursued by its people.
In fact, China has already embarked on the path of this cause. These Olympics were advertised as the “green Olympics.” From banning plastic bags to shutting down factories and reducing the number of cars on the road, Beijing has started to create an environmental and people-friendly city. And in the past 10 years, Beijing citizens, for the first time, can experience the convenience of public transportation and unclogged roads as well as improved air quality.
From the presence of numerous state leaders at the opening ceremony to the thousands of Olympic volunteers, Chinese authorities should realise that the international community and the Chinese people have all been wishing China well. The communist rulers should have confidence in their own people that we can help find environmental solutions for China’s unparalleled environmental challenges. Just as athletes need support and freedom to train for gold medals, so do citizens and civil society organizations need support and freedom to help China find effective environmental solutions that will benefit the entire country.
Prior to the Olympics, most of these nongovernmental groups have been screened due to fear that they could create trouble during the Games. But this fear has proven to be unwarranted. Instead, the government should regard these groups as natural allies and should work together with them to protect the environment, reduce poverty, improve education, fight diseases, and protect public health.
The Chinese public must be at the forefront of an effective response to China’s environmental challenges. Currently, China’s environmental movement is organising conservation efforts, leading education programs, and engaging community members in volunteer work. Chinese environmental organisations also have a unique opportunity to work with the government to implement environmental regulations and emulate Beijing’s environmental achievements nationwide.
All of China’s impressive progress and accomplishments to address pollution issues prior to the Olympics have been paralleled with continued environmental challenges across the country: pollution continues to impact the environment and human health in major cities and rural provinces. While the Beijing 2008 Olympics have elevated the status of environmental protection in China, I hope that the improvements we have seen in Beijing will be replicated across the country and continue long after the Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies.
As one of the countries that hold the key to saving the world from environmental destruction, China can help lead efforts to protect the environment. Now, after the closing ceremonies have ended and the international attention has gone away, the real Olympic challenge begins. China made enormous progress dealing with its environmental issues during the Olympics. Can China maintain and advance these environmental gains after the Olympics, benefiting people throughout China? Can China adapt its successes in Beijing to address the environmental challenges throughout China’s vast provinces?
China has a new challenge after the Olympics—one that is arguably even more important than this celebration of humanity and international cooperation that occurs once every four years. Now that the Olympic flame has been extinguished at the Bird’s Nest stadium, China’s leaders and people need to work together to protect the environment. Even more than the Olympics, this new cause that can unite China, its leaders, and its people will define China’s legacy in the future.
Wen Bo is the Beijing-based China programme co-director of Pacific Environment, a San Francisco environmental group working to protect the environment around the Pacific Rim. He is also an Asia Society fellow
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