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August 7th, 2008:

Olympics Clean-Up Hides The Real Beijing

Associated Press in Beijing – Updated on Aug 07, 2008

It all began when my colleague Steve’s favourite noodle lady was forced to close down. Soon after, the ice pop lady was gone, followed by the scary fruit guy.

Then, a few weeks ago, the shabby apartment complex across the street from mine was covered up with a three-metre high sheet metal fence. The barrier blocks a row of small shops on the ground floor that offer everything from handmade Chinese bread to bicycle repairs.

The Beijing that visitors and television viewers see during the Olympics isn’t my Beijing. It’s unnaturally sanitised and stiffly coiffed, with much of its frenetic grittiness and earthy charm falling victim to zealous organisers who want to host a flawless event.

Since I moved here from the US 16 months ago, I’ve found the beauty of Beijing to be that it’s full of contradictions and doesn’t try too hard to please.

It’s an ancient capital that’s constantly being rebuilt. It’s the cultural heart of China, yet also home to hip-hop clubs packed with kids swilling cold green tea mixed with whiskey. In the downtown business district where I live, I often see bare-bottomed babies, horse-drawn carts and chickens pecking the sidewalk.

That’s the real Beijing. In Olympics Beijing, half the cars have been taken off the roads, and many migrant workers and students have been sent home to reduce pollution and congestion. Much of the city seems eerily quiet, much like the feeling you get driving around an American town on Christmas morning.

Almost all construction has been halted. Building sites where machinery pounded and banged 24 hours a day in the lead-up to the Olympics are quiet. I used to count nearly 30 construction cranes from my apartment window; now I only see six.

Authorities have taken pains to hide as many of the unfinished buildings as they can. The concrete skeletons are draped with giant sheets decorated with pictures of Olympic athletes or forest scenes. A structure on Wangfujing, Beijing’s famous pedestrian mall, is covered with a drape painted to look like a finished building.

Taxi drivers have been issued uniforms and are now among the sharpest-looking drivers in the world, with navy trousers, butter-yellow shirts and striped ties. Believe me, visitors here wouldn’t normally confuse a cab driver with an office worker.

And then there’s Steve’s noodle lady.

The food stalls that crowded many side streets have been ordered closed and a lot of sidewalk dining has been banned, because they’re considered unsightly or unsanitary. Meanwhile, the menus at proper eateries now have officially approved English translations. No more “the temple explodes the chicken cube” (kung pao chicken) or “fried crap” (er, carp).

The noodle lady and her cart behind the AP Beijing bureau have been gone for weeks. For just three yuan you got cold, spaghetti-like noodles mixed with shreds of cucumber and bits of tofu, seasoned with sesame paste, soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, plenty of garlic and a special sauce.

Steve Wade, our sports writer, ate two servings every day, slurping his noodles from a big soup bowl. “Hey, if I went to your house and your mom made something really good, I wouldn’t eat just one bowl,” he told me. They really were that tasty.

Though I had been writing about the coming Olympics for well over a year, it seemed intangible and far away â until the noodle lady stopped showing up. Then I knew the Olympics were for real.

“Two months, we’ll be back in two months,” said a man filling in for the ice pop lady one afternoon a few weeks ago. Mr Wu clutched a wad of one yuan and fifty-cent bills in his hand, interrupting our chat to sell snowman-shaped ice cream bars to schoolchildren. Mr Wu, who wouldn’t give his first name, lashed out at the government for what he said was its obsession with looking good for foreigners.

“When other countries host the Olympic Games, they do it to make money, but look at China. It’s only for face,” he said.

Mr Wu has since left for his hometown of Chengde, northeast of Beijing. Also gone is the burly fruit guy, who peddled small piles of apples, peaches and slices of pineapple at night from the back of a tricycle cart in the parking lot of my apartment complex.

“Hey!” he’d growl at scurrying passers-by. “Fruit! You wanna buy some fruit?”

Many people are waiting for the Olympics to be over, so life can get back to normal. The more enterprising are finding ways to survive.

This week, a co-worker tipped me off to a woman who was secretly selling cold noodles â behind a huge Olympics sign.

And life goes on behind the sheet metal fence blocking the Soviet-built apartment complex across from mine. A shop owner has hung red lanterns and a Chinese flag around a little opening left in the fence so customers can get in. Her cold drink cases are back outside along with the crates of peaches. For her other wares, the marital aids, someone has rehung the “sex shop” sign over the door, and last week she was giving someone’s dog a haircut.

Crazy, unpredictable Beijing is still alive, after all, just behind the fence.

That made me feel better.

Beijing’s Green Efforts Are Clear For All To See

Achim Steiner – SCMP – Updated on Aug 07, 2008

Images of the Beijing skyline seemingly bathed in a soup of smog and haze have been a common sight on the world’s TV screens in recent days and weeks. Foreign journalists with hand-held air pollution detectors have been popping up on street corners checking levels of soot and dust. Everyone seems keen to prove that the city’s air will be a decisive and debilitating factor for one of the world’s most high-profile sporting events.

Without doubt, Beijing is facing a huge challenge. There are real concerns for the health of competitors, especially those in endurance and long-distance events such as cycling and the marathon.

But the current frenzied focus is marked by considerable amnesia. After all, air pollution was a major concern in Los Angeles 24 years ago, though few now seem to recall the dramatic scene at the end of the women’s marathon, when the Swiss competitor was seen staggering from exhaustion, the heat and, perhaps, the effects of air pollution. And air quality was also an issue for subsequent Olympic Games in Barcelona, Atlanta, Seoul and Athens.

So the debate about the Beijing Games deserves more fair play than it has received. Indeed, real and – one hopes – long-lasting achievements have been made by the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, the city as a whole, the government and the six provinces concerned. This is all the more remarkable when set against the city’s double-digit economic growth and the fact that the Games are being staged in a developing country, with all the social, economic, health and environmental challenges this entails.

For example, some 200 polluting factories have been closed, switched to new kinds of cleaner production, or moved out of the city over the past seven years. Moreover, as a result of a US$17 billion investment, more than 90 per cent of the city’s waste water is now treated, more than 50 per cent of the city is forested, and natural gas accounts for more than 60 per cent of energy generation, up from roughly 45 per cent in 2000.

Meanwhile, eight new railway lines, covering 200km and with a daily capacity of close to 4 million people, have become operational this year, alongside 60km of bus routes. New vehicle emission standards meet the most stringent equivalent European standards, and are higher than in the US.

In addition, 50,000 old taxis and 10,000 buses have been replaced, and 4,000 of the new buses are powered by natural gas – now the largest fleet of its kind in the world. The authorities have also requested businesses to stagger their working day before, during and after the Games to reduce traffic volume, alongside a raft of other traffic-cutting measures.

Only time will tell if all these measures will bring air pollution down to acceptable levels. The United Nations Environment Programme will certainly make this a focus of its post-Games report, building on the initial one issued last year.

But it is clear that Beijing is striving to be part of the Green Team, embracing environmental standards that are now central to the modern Olympic movement.

Increased public awareness, the ability to showcase more sustainable ways of managing an urban setting, and the legacy of more environmentally friendly energy, transport systems and other infrastructure should also not be underestimated.

Humanity is engaged in a far-reaching and urgent competition that pits the need to embed a 21st-century “green economy” against the rapid implosion of our climate and natural life-support systems. The catalytic and inspirational possibilities of events like the Olympics thus have a wider role to play, one that might just help prevent us from staggering and collapsing under the weight of our environmental degradation.

Achim Steiner is undersecretary general of the UN and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, which is assisting the Beijing Organising Committee on environmental issues.

Haze, Smog Or ‘Fumy Mist’?

Haze, smog or ‘fumy mist’? Jury still out on the big day

Jane Cai and Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Aug 07, 2008

When organisers of the Beijing leg of the Olympic torch relay limited each of yesterday’s 433 torch bearers to about 30 metres, it may have been in the interests of their health.

For the third consecutive day, the capital was blanketed in smog, with temperatures in the mid-30s Celsius, raising doubts yet again about whether the host city’s measures to curb air pollution have been effective.

“Standing still in the open air for as little as one minute makes me sweat and short of breath. It must be difficult for athletes to break records,” 35-year-old Beijing resident Wu Hongmei said.

“The smog must be caused by pollution. The chronic problem just cannot be solved simply by temporary measures.”

But the Ministry of Environmental Protection said Beijing’s air quality was in the “moderate” category for the past three days, with the air pollution index reading 83 on Monday, 88 on Tuesday and 85 yesterday.

A reading below 50 is considered “good”, while 101 to 150 is “unhealthy for sensitive groups”. Higher pollution categories are “unhealthy”, “very unhealthy” and “hazardous”.

“The comfort levels people feel are not directly related to temperature or air quality,” Wang Jianjie, deputy director of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, said yesterday.

“Air quality mainly refers to particulate volume in the air. It may be foggy and the visibility might be low, but it does not necessarily mean poor air quality.”

But Ms Wang and other meteorologists were more cautious in answering the critical question of whether the capital’s smog-plagued air would be clear for the opening ceremony.

Despite cloud cover and a chance of showers, it was unlikely that the ceremony would be disrupted by bad weather, China Meteorological Administration forecasters said.

It will be humid and mostly overcast during the ceremony, with intermittent showers expected between midday and early evening, according to the latest forecasts.

“But Beijing’s weather has been precarious these days, and we will have to follow it closely and update our forecast later,” administration spokesman Yu Xinwen said.

Beijingers and thousands of visitors from around the world would have to endure a “fumy mist”, sultry heat and humidity of more than 70 per cent for the next two days until the threat of rain disappeared at the weekend, he added.

IOC medical commission chief Arne Ljungqvist said on Tuesday that hot and humid conditions coupled with a haze that covered Beijing on Monday were sometimes mistaken for pollution.

“The misty air is not a feature of pollution but a feature of evaporation and humidity,” Dr Ljungqvist said.

The impact of pollution in the capital on the health of athletes and visitors has been a major concern. In an attempt to ease worries, Beijing has ordered almost half of its 3.3 million privately owned cars off the roads, halted construction work and shut down polluting factories.

Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau has applauded the emissions reduction efforts, with deputy director Du Shaozhong saying the capital’s three “good” air quality days and two days of “moderate” quality this month were good results given the unfavourable weather.

A researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences predicted the city’s air quality would remain in the “moderate” range for the opening ceremony.

“I think the city’s comprehensive and strict measures to control pollution have paid off,” Xinhua quoted Wang Zifa , from the academy’s Institute of Atmospheric Science, as saying.

Beijing’s weather bureau predicted overcast skies today, but Mr Wang predicted rain, which could clear the smog and brighten prospects for clear skies tomorrow.

Changsha Jumps On Emission Scheme Bandwagon

Eric Ng and Reuters in Beijing – Updated on Aug 07, 2008 – SCMP

Changsha yesterday became the third mainland city in two days to announce an emissions trading scheme designed to penalise polluters and encourage greener sources of power through pollution credits.

The capital city of Hunan province will set up a local emission trading scheme covering a variety of waste gases and water pollutants, with plans to set up a trading market, Reuters quoted mayor Zhang Jianfei as saying. The system could be in place as soon as next year.

Quotas for dust, carbon dioxide and chemical oxygen demand – a water pollution measure – would be assigned to local districts. Those failing to meet the quotas would be fined, unless they purchased quotas from polluters that had credits to spare.

The announcement came a day after Beijing and Shanghai both launched emissions exchanges.

China Beijing Environment Exchange chairman Xiong Yan said that the exchange would lay a foundation for China to use market-based methods to reduce pollution and save energy by enhancing transparency and information flow.

“There is huge potential in the environment exchange market of China,” he said. “However, the asymmetric information and lack of expertise in Chinese enterprises result in a serious undervaluation in environment exchange products.”

The Shanghai Environment and Energy Exchange was also inaugurated on Tuesday.

Xinhua quoted unnamed municipal officials as saying that the city plans to launch an emission quota allocation and trading system for heavy-pollution-prone sectors.

In addition, some 55 environmental protection and alternative energy projects involving 1.07 billion yuan (HK$1.22 billion) of investment are planned to be listed on the exchange to attract new investors.

They are currently listed on the Shanghai United Assets and Equity Exchange.

Tianjin was also planning to set up an environment and energy exchange, China Daily reported.

Simon Powell, CLSA’s head of regional power, gas and utilities exchange, said news of the exchanges was not unexpected. Several pilot arrangements have been set up on the mainland for voluntary sulphur dioxide and particulates emissions reduction.

“As to the impact on power companies, it would depend on the level of the emission cap to be imposed, the timing and whether it is voluntary or mandatory,” said Mr Powell.

“It is possible that the mainland may adopt a voluntary scheme on sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates but not carbon dioxide.”

What Do You Think Of Air-Con Levels?

Updated on Aug 07, 2008 – SCMP

In the past, having an air conditioner was a luxury and only the affluent could afford them. Now they are a necessary part of our lives. Almost every family in Hong Kong has air cons.

I cannot imagine how I would endure the summer without air conditioners. I did not realise how important they were until the air con in my classroom broke down.

A lot of people turn their air conditioner lower than the temperature recommended by the government, 25.5 degrees Celsius. Sometimes, when I enter my classroom, it feels like a fridge and many of us have to wear jackets. This is a waste of electricity.

Global warming is a serious problem and is caused by many factors. Although car exhausts, factory emissions and deforestation are among the main culprits, we cannot ignore the effect that using air conditioners has on our environment.

Temperatures are gradually rising in Hong Kong and it is predicted that soon the cool months will disappear.

Global warming will see countries facing more extreme weather conditions. Floods, drought, typhoons and heat waves will happen more frequently.

If the water supply is affected, crop yields will drop and affect the food supply. We must all become more aware of the need for greater environmental protection. There must be more tree-planting initiatives and we can all do our bit by using more public transport, recycling and adjusting the temperature on our air conditioners.

Ruth Lam, Lam Tin