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July 30th, 2008:

Wind And Storms Give Beijing Breathing Space

War against smog being won, insists top official

Peter Simpson in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Jul 30, 2008

Clear skies, high visibility and a fresh breeze offered beleaguered Olympic organisers breathing space to declare some good news yesterday: the war on smog is being won.

“The air is better by 20 per cent,” Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau deputy director Du Shaozhong said. “We have seen comprehensive measures implemented, and we’ve seen that they have had comprehensive results.”

Dr Du repeated a standard raft of statistics that suggest this month had enjoyed “25 days of clean air”, though to the eye Beijing was enveloped in smog for most of the month.

A blanket of smog that had hung over the city for the past four days – and marred Sunday’s opening of the Olympic Village – dissipated thanks to overnight thunderstorms and increased wind. They lent contrast and definition to Beijing’s new skyline and eye-catching Olympic venues.

Rare views of the surrounding mountains also gave credence to Dr Du’s claim that the blend of short-term measures introduced recently was now working.

Scores of factories have been closed and hundreds of thousands of vehicles restricted in an odd-even car number plate rule.

Air quality was well within World Health Organisation recommendations – a stark and welcome contrast to the recent run of harmful levels.

But Dr Du’s bold claim of victory was dismissed by visiting Olympians.

“You can’t say the war on smog has been won. Yesterday [Monday] was very bad,” said Australian Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Tancred. “We have an unprecedented medical team here ready to help athletes with respiratory problems.”

Dr Du admitted that as a Beijing native of 50 years, his health suffered on heavily polluted days.

“You must trust what your body tells you. On [badly polluted] days, I feel bad. But today I feel good … My hope is that we will have more days when people feel good and the data is good,” he said. But, he added, technical know-how and scientific data must be trusted and believed before the hundreds of photographic and TV images beamed across the world in recent days.

Dr Du dismissed reports in Monday’s state media that quoted a leading environmentalist, Zhu Tong , as saying further government measures could include taking up to 90 per cent of privately owned cars off the road in a last-gasp attempt to make the air safe and improve the host nation’s global image.

“I do know about the 90 per cent figure, and I would have to talk with and ask China Daily how they obtained such figures.”

Mr Zhu, a leading consultant advising the government on its Olympics air cleanup quest, confirmed last night that senior officials had discussed the idea of restricting all the capital’s vehicles.

“We have proposed to the authorities to take 90 per cent of vehicles off the road if there are no other tools left to combat air pollution. We suggested the measure be adopted if the bad air quality continues,” he said.

“I don’t know if all environmental officials had been informed about the plan, but I think many understand this might be the last tool we have to fight pollution if the air quality keeps getting worse despite the measures we have taken so far. Related authorities will have to inform the public about the measures days prior to any implementation; otherwise, the extreme traffic restriction would cause confusion and chaos.”

Additional reporting by Al Guo

Japan’s Athletes May Wear Masks

Reuters – Updated on Jul 30, 2008

Japanese athletes may wear masks made for construction workers to cope with air pollution during the Beijing Olympics, a doctor affiliated with the Japanese Olympic Committee has said.

An increasing number of international athletes are considering wearing face masks for the Games despite official promises of clearer skies in Beijing and warnings that pictures of masked competitors could embarrass the hosts.

“Our previous research shows the amount of dust in the air is high in Beijing and that may affect some of the Japanese athletes,” committee medical adviser Takao Akama said yesterday.

Marathon runners and cyclists might not be the only ones using the masks. “Some athletes are sensitive, so we have decided to have those pollution masks ready for any member of the Japanese Olympic team who would like to use one,” said Dr Akama, who works at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Koken, the company that makes the masks, has supplied the committee with 500 industrial-strength units. Japan’s team has almost 600 members.

Beijing’s air pollution, a sometimes acrid mix of construction dust, vehicle exhaust and factory and power-plant fumes, has been one of the biggest worries for Games organisers.

Yesterday, state media quoted Beijing authorities as saying sauna-like weather trapping smog in the host city would not last throughout next month. Officials have repeatedly said there is no need for athletes to bring masks.

Paris Divided Over Latest ‘Green Dream’

A mayor’s vision: first bikes, next electric cars

Associated Press in Paris – Updated on Jul 30, 2008

Paris’ ambitious mayor has a new “green dream” after the spectacular success of his bike-sharing scheme launched a year ago: a version for electric cars.

Under Bertrand Delanoe’s environmentally friendly plan, a driver could pick up a car, say, on the Left Bank, snake up the slopes of Montmartre, then drop it off – and only pay for the minutes spent behind the wheel.

But cars, even electric, are already proving more divisive than bikes. With the price of petrol steadily rising and Paris parking a permanent headache, some drivers are delighted by the new project. Others see it as a step backward, fearing it could mean more traffic in an already congested city.

The programme dubbed Autolib’ will be launched in late 2009 or early 2010 with a fleet of 4,000 electric cars – 2,000 within Paris and 2,000 in the city’s suburbs. As with the Velib’ bike-sharing programme, Autolib’ users would be able to rent cars from one of 700 planned pick-up points, both under and above ground, and drop them off at any other location.

Organisers say it is too early to discuss details such as how the car parks would be monitored or whether non-French driving licences would be accepted – or even how much the cars would cost.

Car-sharing is a growing trend in many countries, with private companies such as Zipcar flourishing in cities as petrol prices go up. Autolib’, however, will be run by the city of Paris.

According to Annick Lepetit, deputy mayor in charge of transportation, Autolib’ would target those who are considering buying their first car – in the hopes of deterring them from ever buying a polluting car. By putting pick-up points in the suburbs, it would also encourage occasional commuters to choose a petrol-free alternative to getting into the city.

She cited a recent survey showing that a majority of Parisians were in favour of a car-sharing project like Autolib’.

Yet some members of Paris’ influential Green Party have been vocal critics, even though the Autolib’ project calls for electric cars.

They want to reduce car use altogether.

Denis Beaupin, a Green deputy mayor for the environment, said the Greens would rather see a system where shared cars were returned to the pick-up points from which they were hired, to ensure that they are only used in exceptional situations.

But Pascal Husting, president of Greenpeace France, said Autolib’ would be a step in the right direction.

“We should be open to this type of initiative, knowing that there is not one solution to the problems of transportation and climate change,” he said.

Abeykoon Kapugoda, 50, a maitre d’hotel who lives in the suburb of Villejuif, owns a car. But within Paris, he prefers to take the bus, because he finds parking a headache.

“If it’s easy to park at Autolib’ stations, I would use that,” he said, as he waited for his bus.

“And I would definitely prefer to drive a car that doesn’t pollute.”

Financing for the project is still in the planning stages, and according to Ms Lepetit, zero-emission hybrids could be an alternative if the city cannot find a carmaker with the capacity to provide 4,000 electric cars in time.

Should the future Parisian Autolib’ meet the same success as its two-wheel counterpart, it could provide a valuable boost for the capital’s mayor, who hopes to clinch the leadership of France’s Socialist Party later this year. Mr Delanoe has made fighting traffic and pollution a top goal .

Velib’, which debuted in July 2007, has changed the Parisian landscape, with 16,000 silver bikes lined up at 1,200 parking spots. It was quickly adopted by Parisians, with 29 million rentals in a year and over 200,000 annual subscribers.

But Velib’ has earned the ire of some drivers, who say inexperienced new cyclists ride irresponsibly; three Velib’ deaths have been recorded since its start.

Velib’ celebrated its first birthday on Sunday with a rare sporting honour: 365 users rode the clunky rental bikes on the final stage of the Tour de France, gliding across the finish line on the Champs-Elysees before the arrival of the Tour cyclists.

No Amount Of Smog Can Cloud Eyes Of The World

Tom Plate – SCMP – Updated on Jul 30, 2008

In reality, the Beijing Olympics, which opens next Friday, creates three different categories of events. It’s important to understand this.

The first event is the one that observers on the ground in China will see, the second is the event the rest of the world will see, and the third is the event or events no one may ever see.

On the mainland, there are the competitive sporting events taking place in real time. Many people – and multinational corporations – have already bought tickets to see these events with their own eyes, assuming the region’s onerous smog and summer temperature inversions don’t effectively blur their vision.

The second categorically different event is absolutely guaranteed to blur the clarity of your vision: this is the media event. The telecasting of the Olympics is not a pure sporting event but a carefully engineered commercial reality.

Commercial reality and artistic or athletic integrity rarely overlap much. “Inasmuch as the production of the televised image of this spectacle is a prop for advertising,” wrote French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “the televised event is a commercial, marketable product that must be designed to reach the largest audience and hold onto it the longest.”

Bourdieu concludes in his classic work On Television that “it follows that the relative importance of the different sports [as ranked by the international sports organisations in advance of the Games and then by TV, during the Games, especially as regards `prime-time’ scheduling] increasingly depends on their television popularity and the correlated financial return they promise.”

But beyond this two-step social construction is a third major event. This is the political reality within China itself during the Games.

To be sure, if China’s political authorities have it their way, these Olympics will remain but a two-step event. They have no desire to let us see or know about any political demonstrations, violence, unrest or even pollution. This is understandable.

But there will be an unprecedented amount of electronic media and foreign journalists on the mainland.

The intent of the organisers and the government is to have everyone’s eyes focused on the sporting events. But the media, as Bourdieu has famously observed, have the ability to rearrange reality like a magnet to a pile of iron filings when they enter any arena, creating an overall pattern for simpler observation.

This is why next month is both a fabulous and scary time for Beijing. It gets the Olympics, for which it has worked so hard. But it also gets the gigantic international media magnet, which will change events and their appearances. Will the renewed Muslim resistance suddenly appear around the capital? Will the media magnet lure Xinjiang separatists – some of whom clearly are terrorists, perhaps suicide ones – into the spotlight, simply because the spotlight is now there?

And how about the widespread unemployment created by economic injustice, not to mention the demographic dislocation triggered by the intensive Olympic-related construction? If it is not suppressed by police and security, will the media’s eye catch a glimpse of it for the world? Or, instead, will Beijing authorities prefer to clamp down on the international media, not to mention dissenters looking for attention?

No matter how dense the air pollution, it can’t possibly be thick enough to block out all political reality from the camera’s eye.

No country of 1.3 billion is easily governed. China’s economic condition has greatly improved from the reforms started three decades ago. But, as everywhere in the world, the reality of China is still less than ideal, maybe even more so than in other places. No one in their right mind should wish China anything other than the most grandiose and happy of Olympic Games. But in taking on this great honour, China may have bitten off more than it can chew.

Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of Confessions of an American Media Man

This Is Our Fault

Updated on Jul 30, 2008 – SCMP

Isn’t this amazing? A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) (“Ocean winds credited with clearing skies”, July 25) said fine weather and “the measures implemented over the past years have also contributed to better air quality”.

It appeared that as of this Monday, these so-called measures had actually done very little. All pollution monitoring stations were high. And please do not tell me this pollution is coming from across the border. This is our own pollution created in Hong Kong.

I am not sure what “measures” the EPD is talking about, but I know many have not been implemented – no road pricing, no idling engine ban, no timetable for removing old polluting vehicles, no aggressive action on power plants. The list could go on and on.

So what measures is the EPD talking about? Could someone please enlighten us? And no matter what measures have been taken they certainly are not nearly enough.

Terry Scott, Sha Tin

Dirty Air And The Beijing Olympics

Published: July 30 2008 19:09 | Last updated: July 30 2008 19:09 – Financial Times

The arrival of dense smog in both Beijing and Hong Kong in recent days has delivered a salutary fright to the organisers of the Olympics less than two weeks before the opening of the games on August 8.

Officials in both cities have tried every trick in their propaganda arsenals to play down the significance of the air pollution. They have blamed unfavourable weather conditions, which simply means there has not been enough wind to blow the pollution somewhere else. And, in the case of Beijing, they have pointed out that the pollution would have been even worse had they not taken special measures to protect the Olympics.

These assertions are true, but provide no comfort. Indeed, the dreadful quality of Beijing’s air even after construction work has been halted, factories closed and vehicle traffic restricted demonstrates the severity of the environmental crisis afflicting modern China. Bad air threatens not only the short-term performance of Olympic athletes (who will in any case have left by the end of August), but also the long-term health of the entire Chinese urban population, not to mention the health of the planet’s atmosphere.

China promised a “Green Olympics” and has done much to try to achieve that goal, as acknowledged in a report released this week by Greenpeace, the environmental group. But Chinese leaders have also failed to recognise the extreme seriousness of the country’s air pollution and have favoured the appearance of progress over the difficult actions required to make progress real.

Hong Kong, a wealthy and autonomous city state whose tycoons have invested heavily in the polluting industries of neighbouring Guangdong, has done virtually nothing in the past five years to reverse the steady deterioration of south China’s air quality. On Monday, the city was shrouded in a brown miasma and suffered the worst pollution levels on record as it prepared to host the equestrian events of the Olympics.

Prompted by the approach of the games, Beijing has done more, including the investment of billions of dollars in new metro lines. Unfortunately, nervous party officials have also fiddled with air pollution measuring systems to produce illusory improvements in air quality, and have recently refused to provide essential data even to scientists contracted to advise the authorities on how to improve the air for the Olympics. They have accused foreign photographers of trying to make China look bad and resorted to the old Hong Kong lie that the smoke and dust in the air is “haze” not pollution.

The recent smoggy conditions show the folly of this mixture of secrecy and spin, because the thousands of visitors to Beijing and Hong Kong can see and breathe the air for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. Athletes and officials will understandably hope for more of the breezes that blew the smog away on Wednesday, but they have been duly reminded that while wind may temporarily disguise the crisis, it is not a permanent solution to one of China’s most pressing environmental challenges.

Calm Whitfield Breathing Easier Than Most

Doug Smith – The Star – July 30, 2008

Pictures from Beijing paint a bleak picture of lung-clogging pollution and a grey haze engulfing what will be the centre of the sports universe when the Olympics begin next week.

They are splattered over the front pages of newspapers as a reminder of the horrific conditions that might greet athletes when the Games open.

From his relatively idyllic home in Victoria, triathlete Simon Whitfield sees them and has a wish.

“I’m just hoping everything’s been Photoshopped,” the former Olympic gold medallist said.

But even as Whitfield hopes that reality changes and things aren’t as bad as many expect, the Games continue to lurch from controversy to controversy as the opening ceremonies draw nearer.

A day after allegations of falsified ages for young gymnasts rocked the host country and the satellite equestrian venue was worried about the possibility of bird flu in the area, journalists found yesterday that access to several Internet sites was being blocked by Chinese officials, a breach of promises made during the run-up to the Games.

The blocked sites will make it difficult for journalists to retrieve information, particularly on political and human rights stories the government dislikes. Yesterday, sites such as Amnesty International or any search for a site with Tibet in the address could not be opened at the main press centre, which will house about 5,000 print journalists when the Games open Aug. 8.

But things like Internet access, the age of competitors and the possibility of bird flu in Hong Kong don’t really affect Whitfield, who is taking things quite calmly as his third Olympics approach.

The 33-year-old, a surprise gold medallist in Sydney eight years ago and 11th in Athens in 2004, figures it does him no good to get worried about what the conditions might be when he races.

“I could condemn it, I could praise it and nothing will change,” he said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Easing his mind a little bit is the fact he won’t be in the middle of Beijing soaking up whatever irritants are floating in the air.

The triathlon venue is a bit more than an hour outside the city and Whitfield and his Canadian teammates will be ensconced there, rather than in the athletes’ village.

He admits the possibility of breath-sapping pollution is “alarming” for fans and competitors who will be right in the city, but not for him or his teammates.

“I’m not too concerned about it,” he said. “I’m pretty confident it won’t be a problem. I’ve raced there twice before and we haven’t had any problems with pollution.”

Whitfield said the decision to live outside the village had nothing to do with conditions there.

“I think we responded to the fact other countries have done that,” he said, singling out teams from Australia, Great Britain, Spain and New Zealand as other medal-hopeful countries who are living near the venue. “What we’re doing, basically, is evening the playing field.”

The digs aren’t too bad, either. Whitfield jokingly referred to the team’s accommodations as “the most ridiculous mansion you’ve ever seen,” hardly the kind of dorm rooms that mark an athletes’ village.

“I think it’s got a two-storey aquarium,” he said.

It will also house the small but important support team Whitfield needs, including coaches and massage therapists.

“We don’t technically have a chef, we have a guy who may help us with groceries,” he said.

In a decision he said was made during Olympic planning about two years ago, Whitfield won’t even get to Beijing until the second week of the Games, five days before his race. That’s about two days earlier than he would normally get to a competition and should be enough time to get acclimated to China.

“I’ll be watching (the opening ceremonies) from a bike shop here in Victoria,” he said.