No Resting on Laurels

Chinese Science / by TJ Kelleher /

The Olympics, China's world debut, have ended. Now what?

After winning the 2008 Olympic bid, China’s vice premier claimed it was “an example of the international recognition of China’s social stability, economic progress, and the healthy life of the Chinese people.” The desire for international validation and a prominent spot on the world stage have motivated Olympic bids for decades. Now the task is for China to keep it and manage the increased global scrutiny that comes along for the ride. Seed takes a look at some of the nation’s post-game, science-related ventures in sectors including environmental protection, space exploration, and social policy, to see what may keep China in the spotlight beyond the sporting arena.

China has boasted of the Beijing Olympics as the green Olympics, but severe underlying problems remain. In the aftermath of the loss of the Yangtze River dolphin, the extinction of the giant panda, an international symbol of the Middle Kingdom — and an Olympic mascot — would further besmirch China’s conservation record. As part of an effort to forestall the species’ demise, the Beijing Genomic Institute-Shenzhen in March 2008 announced an international initiative to sequence the giant panda genome, with a sequence due to be published this September; the International Giant Panda Genome project is the first of its kind to have aiding conservation efforts among its primary goals.

No less iconic than the giant panda is the dense smog that hangs over Beijing. This, however, is one symbol China would be happy to see gone. China has devoted more than $3 billion to clean-up efforts, which include new driving rules, temporarily shuttering factories, and even attempts at weather control. Such palliatives, however, cannot replace a better environmental policy. An article in Science argues that if China’s energy usage keeps pace with economic growth, by 2030 China will be emitting as much carbon as the whole world is today. China is moving to reduce and offset those emissions, adopting improved coal-burning plants, carbon-sequestration methods, extensive reforestation projects, and renewable energy sources, but even generous models foresee China alone producing 50 percent of today’s worldwide carbon output in just 20 years.

Illustration by Joe Kloc

Nearly guaranteed to keep the world’s eye on China is its continuing space program, which is every bit as ambitious as the one President Bush outlined in 2004 and which is seemingly closer to achieving its goals. This October China launches its Shenzhou-7 spacecraft into orbit with three taikonauts onboard. This will be China’s third manned space mission and will include the country’s first spacewalk. And there’s more to come: The Shenzhou program should culminate in an orbiting space laboratory by 2012 and a full-blown space station by 2024. At the same time China plans to piggyback a Mars-bound microsatellite on a Russian mission to the Martian moon Phobos, and to send a number of missions to our Moon. China hopes to ultimately send humans to both the Moon and Mars, with taikonauts reaching Earth’s satellite by 2020, and the red planet in 30 to 50 years.

China’s other major challenge is dealing with a population structure skewed by the one-child policy. A paper by Therese Hesketh and Zhu Wei Xing published in 2006 argued that China’s male-female sex-ratio — these days estimated to be 117 to 100, although parts of China see ratios as high as 150 to 100 — could result in a large population of unmarried and sexually frustrated males, leading to increased crime and other social ills. Reproductive technologies drove South Korea’s population to similarly skewed ratios about 20 years ago, although they are again approaching the typical level of 105 to 100; relaxation or abolishment of the one-child policy would likely have the same effect. Although at least one Chinese minister has suggested that the policy is under review — and it has been debated recently in the South China Morning Post — the government currently has no plan for phasing it out. But, as Hesketh argued in 2006, even if that happens eventually, the young boys and men of today will still suffer.


Originally published October 14, 2008

Tags climate development globalization growth policy population

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