Sam Donnellon: Smog won't hide changes in China

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This photo, taken in 1984, represents China's potential and its restrictions.

SHE WOULD BE 30 now, this little girl. I took her picture in 1984 while covering the Wyoming Seminary soccer team for the Wilkes-Barre TimesLeader. She was peering at us from an apartment window above the bustle of a free market, peering at us as you would an oddity.

I liked the photo then for the same symbolic

reason I do now. Looking through those bars, she seemed to represent an emerging

China at its best and worst.

Untapped potential. Stifling

restriction.

Twenty-four years later, that much hasn't changed.

The rest, I am told, will be hardly recognizable when the Olympics begin there in August.

There were 53 cars registered in Beijing in 1984, or so I was told. Clearly the number was not much more. On the way to our hotel from the airport, I remember seeing an inordinate number of people with patches and bandages on their arms, or heads, or legs. My immediate assumption was that some type of skin problem existed, but clarity came in the form of rush hour. Commuters on bikes, often traveling at speeds of more that 20 miles an hour and five or six to a side, clogged the main thoroughfares. One bump, one bad lateral shift, meant an incredible pileup of

humans and handlebars.

That, in essence, was the health problem.

Now it is pollution. Pollution in the air. Pollution in the rivers. No nation is developing faster than China. No nation has done a better job of lifting its people from poverty. In 1984, billboards were appearing for the first time, and cranes hovered over dozens of half-built buildings throughout Beijing. Sending my stories back to the United States sometimes took all night, and sometimes

required dictation, so poor were the telecommunications. Refrigeration was scarce. Technology, too. You were in a time warp, and you felt it everywhere.

This time I will be sending my stories back home via the Internet. Since that visit, China's economy has grown by an average of 9 percent annually and its rivers and skies have felt the weight of that growth. In the first 5 months of this year alone, 4.3 million automobiles were sold, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

That has cut down on skin problems but increased lung problems.

Ditou, an industrial city just 60 miles east of Beijing, has a cancer incidence 30 times higher than the national average. And the national average is higher than most developed nations with environmental regulations already in place. Wary of its mid-summer skies making athletes sick, the Chinese government

ordered factories around Beijing to shut down a few weeks ago and just this week, began restrictions on automobiles traveling in and around Beijing. But even without the fumes, Beijing is similar to Los Angeles in the summertime, its air trapped by bordering mountains. One elite Olympic marathoner has already announced he will not compete in China because of such health concerns.

Me? News that the Chinese government has installed military rockets around the city and that it will have 100,000 troops on hand during the Games - well I'm thinking the air is the least of my worries.

Critics of the government see this as a ruse, a way to dissuade political protest during the Games and to justify clamping down on it. I hope they are right, because the official explanation included news of a plot to kidnap Olympic journalists.

NOTE TO POTENTIAL KIDNAPPERS OF OLYMPIC JOURNALISTS: This is such a bad idea on so many fronts I don't know where to begin. We complain a lot, require way too much food and smell really bad if we don't get washed daily. Within a few days, hours even, you will be asking yourself who is really

imprisoned by whom.

There are easier ways to make your point. Besides, I am there to tell your story, not become it. In that regard, it's hard to grasp the notion that journalists should boycott these Olympics because of China's dismal human-rights record.

To me, the debate underlines the erosion our industry has

undergone since I photographed that little girl. You go for exactly that reason, to monitor how China grapples with all of it. You go to better understand. You go to paint a more accurate picture, or to take one that captures something. What if no one was there to film that student stopping a tank in Tiananmen Square 19 years ago? Or to chronicle the unrest and persecution in Tibet?

More than any other Olympics, shouldn't we be there?

For years I have imagined what that little girl's life might have been like.

Two weeks in Beijing won't tell me that.

But it might provide a clue. *

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