The following article focuses on Beijing’s pollution woes in the run up to the Olympics. With the organizing committee and municipal government enforcing policies to ensure clear skies and clean air in a bid to stage a successful Olympics, four continuous days of fog in the Chinese capital was ringing alarm bells.
The article, written while on an internship with the Beijing bureau of Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s Chinese language flagship daily, was published July 28, 2008.
Text and photos by Weilun Soon.
With less than twelve days left to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, the thick fog that blanketed the Chinese capital yesterday sparked international concerns. Beijing’s poor air quality recently has shrouded the promise of a “Green Olympics” in a thick fog of uncertainty.
Visibility in Beijing dropped drastically in recent days. Figures released by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau reveal that since last Thursday, air pollution exceeded healthy levels four days in a row. Indices from Thursday to Saturday reached levels of 113, 110 and 115 respectively. Sunday’s index at press time is projected to hit an alarming 125, the highest of the four days.
Previous concerns about Beijing’s pollution levels have now turned into action. The U.S. Olympic Committee dealt out special face masks to its Olympic delegation so as to protect its athletes from Beijing’s pollution. Australia has announced that her delegates, due to concerns about air quality, would not attend the Opening Ceremony.
To a host who prides itself on “Green Olympics”, coupled with the great significance it attaches to the Games of the 29th Olympiad, such international backlash have caused Beijing diplomatic embarrassment.
Environmental Protection Bureau chief Du Shaozhong expressed Saturday that “air quality will certainly improve during the Games. This would provide athletes a conducive environment to participate in.”
Added Du, “I think there’s no need for masks. If you insist upon that, it just adds weight to your luggage. I really think there’s no need for them.”
July 20 was a milestone in Beijing’s “Green Olympics” campaign. Thousands of cars were taken off roads in Beijing with the enforcement of a directive limiting private car usage. On the same day, all construction work in the city must be suspended.
“Our policies have seen success – pollution levels have dropped by over 20 percent over the year,” said Du.
Yet, given Beijing’s efforts, Beijing’s thick haze yesterday has ignited concerns.
“The city should strengthen air quality controls. How can we invite guests to Beijing if it keeps going on like this?” questioned Lin, 28, a resident of Beijing who works in the media industry.
The success of the pollution-reducing policies still has to depend on geographic factors. Guo Hu, bureau chief of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau said that in recent days humidity levels were high.
Miss Wang, who has been working in Beijing for six years, agrees with Guo.
“It’s not uncommon to be this humid in Beijing during summer. The fog is caused by the humidity,” she said. Despite the haze, Wang was out on Tiananmen Square sight-seeing yesterday.
Wang believes that it was by pure coincidence that Beijing experienced low visibility yesterday.
Du, who often reiterates that pollution levels have dropped, said that the fog does not equate to high levels of pollution. “It’s like how you cannot see across the bathroom when you’re in the shower,” he added.
Liu, 30, who works in the chemical engineering industry, was also at Tiananmen Square with his parents, said that pollution isn’t something that can be resolved immediately, upon the implementation of pollution-reducing directives.
“Small construction works are still ongoing,” he said, pointing to cranes that were atop the National Museum right next to Tiananmen Square. “These works will definitely affect air pollution levels.”
The debate over air pollution has not diminished the excitement some have for the upcoming Games, however. Student Zhang Zhenyun, 17, who was visiting the city said that though Beijing’s air quality still leaves much to be desired, authorities have worked hard in pollution-control, and that these efforts should continue.
He said, “To be able to host the Olympics is a pride all Chinese should enjoy. The debate on pollution should not stop us from taking part in this pride together.”
Rad, 36, an American who works in the construction industry, has been in Beijing five times. In noticing the fog, he commented, “Beijing has done a lot to lower pollution levels. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem when the Games start.”