A beautiful China must start with clean air

Updated: 2013-01-19 07:56

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

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I live close to Beijing's Olympic Village where some posters and billboards with inspirational slogans are still visible on walls or atop buildings, evoking memories of a determined city to make the 2008 Olympic Games a success.

One of the slogans urged people to fight a "decisive battle" as the city went into an overdrive for the Games. Construction laborers worked round the clock to build venues before the deadline, volunteers practiced their most charming smiles until their jaws became sore. Even the feared chengguan, or urban administrators, pledged to fight the battle of their lives to teach people civilized manners.

I have always shrugged off such oaths and pledges as foolish exaggerations for show. But over the last weekend, when I coughed and sneezed in the suffocating, apocalyptic smog that shrouded the city, I wished the collective fervor had persisted longer, and the city's "decisive battle" against air pollution had raged on.

To ensure clear skies, more than 130 local factories were either closed or functioned part-time before and during the Olympics. About 1.5 million cars were garaged as the city authorities banned vehicles with license plates ending in odd or even numbers from the roads on alternate days.

In a people's campaign for more blue-sky days, residents were encouraged to report their neighbors for causing pollution. In 2008, informants were offered cash rewards of up to tens of thousands of yuan for reporting vehicles or smokestacks that spewed black smoke and dusty construction sites.

Under an emergency plan at the urging of the central government, if extremely unfavorable atmospheric conditions hit Beijing, hundreds of other factories were to be closed and more vehicles taken off the roads in Beijing and neighboring Tianjin municipality and Hebei province.

Not everyone was a fan of the Olympics. Some actually resented the inconveniences caused by the many improvised rules and regulations. But people accepted the sacrifices for what they perceived to be common good. Officials involved in the preparations were told that it was a political mission and their jobs could be on the line if they failed to fulfill their assigned tasks.

However, after the "decisive battle" was fought and won, the environment quickly returned to its usual self as the public zeal for blue skies evaporated and the local authorities relented their coordinated grip on air pollution.

Five years on, the city still chokes on a combination of coal burning, emission from vehicles and bad weather, which the Olympic organizers had envisaged. And the best the hapless residents can do is to stay home and pray for strong winds roaring in to blow away the suspended particles as soon as possible.

Smoggy skies threaten to strike again soon, as the city's hastily announced emergency measures pale in comparison with the Olympic plan and have failed to address some root causes. For example, to ensure blue skies, the city will have to persuade surrounding provinces and cities to cause less pollution, a tough job because all neighboring places are bent on fast economic growth.

Another great concern is the emission from an increasing number of cars in the city, which stood at 5.2 million in 2012, indicating that one in every four Beijing residents owns a car. Tougher but more costly emission standards, overcoming the resistance from car manufacturers and users, are yet to be implemented.

But if China, proud of its ability to mobilize resources and get things done, cannot do it, which country can? Many people are indeed willing to trade off the vanity of owning a car and the freedom of driving around for clean air. The success of the Beijing Olympics is just a case in point.

The latest pollution woes have caused enough embarrassment to the government's ambition to build a "beautiful China". They may just jolt it into another "decisive battle" to save the skies.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail: dr.baiping@gmail.com

(China Daily 01/19/2013 page5)