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China Shows G-20 World Leaders Its Temporarily Blue Skies


And we're going to stick with the theme of politics and diplomacy in our regular segment, Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand what's happening in the news by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. And this week, the words are G20 blue. We're talking about the G20 forum, where representatives from 19 member countries plus the European Union get together to discuss economic issues. This week, those members are coming together in Hangzhou, China. As for the blue, the Chinese government wants blue skies over Hangzhou for the forum, and that means getting rid of the smog. Anthony Kuhn is our NPR correspondent in China, and he's with us now to tell us more. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, Michel.

MARTIN: So did they pull it off? Are the skies blue?

KUHN: Well, they sure were. They were a beautiful blue until this afternoon when it started pouring rain. They couldn't prevent that. But, you know, this is one of the big ironies of this whole summit, and that is that the U.S. and China have been touting this success that they formally joined the Paris climate agreement by submitting some documents. But in order to reduce pollution for this summit, they had to order half the city's cars off the streets and they had to shut down industry in five surrounding provinces.

The province we're in, Zhejiang, has an economic output the size of Switzerland. And they also had to send two million people of the city's nine million residents out of the city on vacation. So that's two million people getting out for 20 heads of state. So in a word, G20 blue is air quality by government diktat. It's a Potemkin shade of blue.

MARTIN: What - so did this happen for the Beijing Olympics, too? Is this a standard procedure for big events in China?

KUHN: Yeah, there have been more than just that. But the theme is basically the same. China mobilizes masses of people to stage big events. Cities are blanketed in security. The police deputize all these volunteers who patrol the streets or sit on little benches on the corners wearing red armbands and looking for suspicious characters. Dissidents are put under house arrest or they're bundled out of town on involuntary vacations. And complaints about the inconvenience to people's lives, they're just censored right off the internet.

MARTIN: Now, you'd noted the irony earlier that the U.S. and China formally joined the Paris climate change agreement. And the G20 forum itself, which normally addresses economic issues, also is talking about environmental issues. So was that part of the motivation for this G20 blue effort?

KUHN: Well, sure. You know, China's message is that it wants to pursue environmentally sustainable growth. It does not want to remind people of the horrible cost in pollution and harm to people's health that they've paid to develop over the past four decades. But I think it's more than that. I think they really just want to stage a flawless event. They see hosting these big events as a tool of diplomacy, basically, you know, a way to show off their achievements and to get the world's respect. And it appears that they just write off the disruption to folks' lives as an inevitable but affordable cost of all this.

MARTIN: Speaking of flawless or not, there were reports that President Obama was snubbed when he arrived in China for the summit. Is that true?

KUHN: Well, that's the impression some people sure got. When Air Force One landed here on Saturday there was no staircase rolled up to the door of the plane, so President Obama had to disembark from a sort of - a smaller hatch in the belly of the plane. And then the two sides' officials started arguing and tussling over where reporters were or were not allowed to stand. Even National Security Adviser Susan Rice was shooed away from the president. And many people said, you know, it's just not possible that this was a simple mistake or a protocol snafu. The Chinese are so prickly about protocol issues. It had to be a deliberate snub. But anyways, whatever the president thought of this, he did his best to play it down. He was very chill about it all.

MARTIN: That's Anthony Kuhn, NPR's China correspondent, speaking with us from Hangzhou in China. Anthony, thank you.

KUHN: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.