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Emergency clean air

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James Reynolds | 12:56 UK time, Monday, 21 July 2008

It's the first weekday of Beijing's emergency clean air measures. The city has ordered construction sites to shut down, it's ordered factories to cut down emissions, and it's taken more than a million cars off the streets.

These are the final steps that this city has planned in order to fulfill its promise of clean air for the Olympic Games. We've been testing Beijing's air particle pollution for the last two weeks with our own hand-held detector. Here are our results (and pictures).

Graph of pollution in Beijing

At about midday, we went to the second ring road in the centre of Beijing to see how the restrictions were getting on.

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A little further on, we found a hefty crowd of people waiting for the 938 bus. Qu Ming Xia, queued up with her 12-year-old son, Yue Xin Hai - they were on their way back home from school. Normally Mrs Qu would drive. But her car's licence plate ends in an even number - so today, she and her son had to take the bus.

"We're sacrificing our convenience but this can benefit everyone," she told us, "We approve of the restrictions."

Next to the bus stop, we found a group of a dozen or so construction workers using buzz saws to fix the pavement. They appeared to be exempt from the city's ban on construction work (as are the workers fixing the last few window panes to the fairly dazzling, almost-finished new headquarters of Chinese state television).

I'm writing this entry from an office overlooking Beijing's main roads. It's now the start of the evening rush hour. Out of the window, the traffic going one way is pretty quick. But cars going the other way are bunched up - because one of the three lanes has been reserved for official Olympic traffic (of which there appears to be none at the moment.) So, in some places, the new measures mean this: fewer cars, fewer lanes, same jams.


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  • 1. At 1:40pm on 21 Jul 2008, Crossin wrote:

    I think China and Beijing are making a big effort to stage this game, so should the world give China a fair chance to portray itself. All the best to Beijing 2008 Olympics!

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  • 2. At 2:22pm on 21 Jul 2008, rrrrzzzz wrote:

    Hi James,

    Sorry if I make it wrong.

    Are you making the conclusion: fewer cars, fewer lanes, same jams just based on your observation from your office overlooking Beijing's main roads? Because you can see one of the three lanes has been reserved for official Olympic traffic?

    Sorry I do not get it. Can you please it further?

    Thanks a lot

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  • 3. At 2:24pm on 21 Jul 2008, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso wrote:

    I was in China from the 25th of June 2008 to the 5th of July 2008. I also suffer from allergies and respiratory problems. I felt healthier in China than in the West.

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  • 4. At 3:25pm on 21 Jul 2008, tommywang wrote:

    so it is working then...

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  • 5. At 3:42pm on 21 Jul 2008, hughye wrote:

    I found your blog several days ago and i found it's VERY good. Original and informative. And thanks for your concerns about china and appreciate your efforts to point out problems. As to the air pollution you concerned so much, i found it's a little tricky for u to pick up the site at where u recorded your last video. It's very bad even in naked eyes. I've been to Beijing several times and yes, the air is not that good. But pick such a bad site and show it to the whole world, i doubt if it give out the right and the whole image of Beijing's air. And the kind of mock attitude(sorry, i kind of feel it this way) to the methods the city used to clean its air, have u ever occured to u that it might be the best way the goverment could think of right now and they might have done a lot but just as u know, to clean a city or even a country's air is not that easy. I knew it's your responsibility to point out problems and I really appreciate that, but continuously giving out negative image won't construct the whole image of Beijing. U can add some positive ones. Well, in that way your blog won't be blocked so often.(Just kidding. However, the sites still seem unaccessible every other minutes.) I'll keep an eye on your blog. Well done! And Come on!

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  • 6. At 3:52pm on 21 Jul 2008, ravenblk wrote:

    Sigh... I just wish that someday there could be long-shot plans rather than last minute preparation when it comes to public benefits. The people are supportive but don't push it too far.

    I'm not the mayor so it's not my call.

    The westerners are judging us, yes. But why should we care more about their opinions when we should really be working hard on improving the lives of the citizens? Isn't the citizens the essence of a nation?? Win the citizens, win everything... Well then there's always the split of opinions in-between the central government and the local government. In certain areas the governor is less than useless.

    "Face" is always a big issue for the current government. Sometimes it makes me wonder who the hell is in charge of PR - if you can't do things right, at least make it look better.

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  • 7. At 5:36pm on 21 Jul 2008, AmericanInSZ wrote:

    AS OF Tue Jul 22 00:25:22 2008

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  • 8. At 5:48pm on 21 Jul 2008, objection2it wrote:

    Almost all the passenger cars are nearly brand new in Beijing, so they don't burn oil like the cars we have here in my western city. The air will at less smell better over there unlike the stinky air here.

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  • 9. At 9:25pm on 21 Jul 2008, democracy101 wrote:

    Chinese citizens:
    Now that you have breathed and tasted clean air, do not allow your government to let the air return to the way it was. It is for the health of all Chinese!!!!

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  • 10. At 9:30pm on 21 Jul 2008, sheriffCartman wrote:

    Interesting to see how Beijing is tackling the clean air issue for the Olympics. Would be nice to see a follow up however to see if the government has plans to resolve the air pollution issues for the long term, or are these short term measures all the Beijing people get? Same goes for the other local habits. Queuing, not spitting, etc. Will ongoing initiatives carry on post Olympics?

    It's a pity James didn't take the aggregate readings however as suggested by the comments early on. A single reading isn't much of an indication to show how well the pollution measure are really working.

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  • 11. At 11:29pm on 21 Jul 2008, tinyFromchina wrote:

    Good job, James, for keeping us updated.

    Can you provide us more data about Beijing air quality in the morning, afternoon or evening. I mean i want to know how the air quality changes during the day.

    also, it'll give us indication on how the air quality gonna affect the game, say Oly marathon game starts at 9am someday, i want to see how the air quality in Beijing at 9am everyday will be.

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  • 12. At 00:46am on 22 Jul 2008, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    a good step towards cleaner air in beijing...

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  • 13. At 01:17am on 22 Jul 2008, smth_simonblack wrote:

    Haha, I am coming back Beijing this afternoon, and I am hoping for a safe and clean Beijing.

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  • 14. At 01:20am on 22 Jul 2008, heyone wrote:

    So far we have seen Beijing working very hard trying to improve for the Olympics. You can argue that some effects of this campaign (better queues, less spitting etc.) will stay even after the Olympics. But I wonder what the government's long term plans are on issues such as bad air quality. So far we have seen lots of short term measures but I don't think these are going to solve the problems for good.

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  • 15. At 05:42am on 22 Jul 2008, bluejeansbj wrote:

    I happen to know something about the "eviction" as I have a few real estate developer clients.

    To a real estate developer, its costs of sales comprises of primarily two parts: land cost, and construction cost. Land cost include the land premium paid to the government (as land is owned by the government), and the settlement costs paid to the original residents.

    There are strict laws as to how the settlement costs are calculated. In most cases, the original residents get very reasonably compensated. Compensation is sometimes in the form of cash, and sometimes in the form of alternative (but newer, and generally larger) residence. In fact, the compensation has become a strong incentive for many original residents to hold on to their original residence, no matter how shabby it is, as they are waiting for the real property price to go further up so that they can get a windfall when they are being "evicted".

    Nearby a community that I use to live in surburb Beijing, there is an entire community which is sometimes referred to as a "home-in-return", or "fan qian" in Chinese. The entire community is built for the original residents whose old homes were pulled down. I also got to know a home owner from this community, who is very happy with the compensation that he got. In fact, he believes that he made a fortune out of it.

    I'm not saying no violence at all is involved in the eviction process. Most of the times, disputes arise because the original residents demand higher compensation. I believe many Chinese netizens would remember the report on "the toughest original resident in the history" in Sichuan. When the entire community around her has been pulled down, and when her home became kind of standing a-alone "island", when new homes are already being built around he home, she was still holding on to her old house (and hoisted a national flag on top of it). She was even hosting press conferences with media. The result of this, as I heard from various report, was that the she was able to negotiate a satisfactory compensation with the developer.

    If James is really interested in the lives of the "evited" people, you should interview the people who used to live nearby the Three Gorges. That is the largest scale of relocation in China. Please interview them, and see if they are happy with their current lives. And those "evictions" had nothing to do with the Olympics.

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  • 16. At 07:05am on 22 Jul 2008, Btwestneast wrote:

    Hello James!
    It is a huge topic to talk about pollution, especially the air pollution. I remember when attending primariy school in Beijing (then was Peking), there used to be sandstorm once in a few years. When it happens, the 25W blub become bluish, almost the same colour as that of the "Daylight" tube light. Falling from sky was the very fine yellowish powder. Back then I didn't know what it was as I do now. For past a few years, maybe ten or so, I can hear from BBC World service or watch some other TV reports that the sandstorm happens more often. It can be several times a year. Back then it would happen during the spring only. But now it seems it happens on other seasons, too. May I conclude: it is getting worse?! My concern actually is not about the upcoming Olympics, but our children, their children and the childrens' children.................... the nation's future. What colour would the sky above Beijing be? grey, yellowish or bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue? One may have realised that Chinese are very defensive (others may be the same, but why should I care about them, now? Wait til the day comes). I feel it, too, although it is not always good. However many things, especially the difference between China's culture and other nations common practices, can not be judged by Good or Bad, Right or Wrong, Advanceed or Backwards. The more I think, the more I am confused. If I may go back to Beijing's air. I have seen the people I used to work with became so sick in clean air that they had to be streched to airplanes going back home, Beijing. After landing while the hatch opened, with a deep inhalation of Beijing's air, they jumped off from where they were and carried they own luggages, dashing out the airport, meeting their loved ones respectively. The later medical exams showed them all in perfect physical conditions. I was wondering if someone did some research on this cases, it might win some big international prizes, at least be nominated. Again, forgive me to go back to my concerns, worries, I really wish someone could stand right on the square in the yellowish sandstorm, telling the whole nation, maybe the entire world, with all media presence, that we are sorry for not brigh the sand and other particles under control after nearly 70 years founding of New China. We would at least spend the same amount of money of hosting the Olympics to return the sky her original colour not only Beijing but all over China!!!!!!!!!!!. I believe this would cheer everybody up and shut everyone down. And this would be the very first blue sky to be seen in the not very far future.
    Thank you, James!

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  • 17. At 10:07am on 22 Jul 2008, Rikey wrote:

    So, China is delivering...

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  • 18. At 10:28am on 22 Jul 2008, tommywang wrote:

    democracy101 or democrazy101

    who are you to tell all Chinese citizens?!

    we are more than capable of making desicions for our own future!

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  • 19. At 11:53am on 22 Jul 2008, Phil_Bloggs wrote:

    I am more than a little grateful to be living in the Alps. There is pollution, even here, but for the most part we can smell only clean air.

    That difference is made clear the moment I step off a plane in London. The smell is overpowering at times. And yes its the traffic. Im told you get used to it but should it be there at all?

    When did the 'clean air act' come into force? How much effort has been put into restricting traffic? Is it working as planned?

    Restricting cars by number plate is not new. I believe Brazil still does this. Paris has tried as have several others. The Chinese have addressed the problem in the most direct way possible....and the effect has been immediate....and good.

    Yes, inconvenient for some but please, lets look at it as it was intended to be looked at. These people are pulling out all the stops to make the world welcome.

    There is no Asian 'I'. Its always the Asian 'We'. Hats off to them and a big thankyou for the effort.

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  • 20. At 12:26pm on 22 Jul 2008, hizento wrote:

    In the UK air quality in the 1980s was very poor, that was when it has a manufacturing industry. It was even worse in the 50s and 60s when Britain was the "workshop of the world" but now China does all the manufacturing so it is hardly surprisiing the country has a pollution problem. It is unfair for people to think that it is because of mismanagment by the Chinese government that pollution occurs in China. It is the result of economic success. If you want clean air in China maybe you advocate China return to the Maoist era.

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  • 21. At 6:06pm on 22 Jul 2008, londonlurker wrote:

    I always miss the clean air in Beijing as it was 20 years ago, when there was no KFC and McDonald's around. Then we opened the door and let free trade come in. We get to do the dirty job for everyone and get all the blame. Vola!

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  • 22. At 3:39pm on 23 Jul 2008, chicag30 wrote:

    I think it is interesting that I have not heard any reporter commenting on how the factory shutdowns will affect the Chinese people. Will these workers have 2 months of no pay? If so, how will they survive?

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  • 23. At 04:12am on 26 Jul 2008, howardzzzz wrote:

    Chinese enterpreneurs should consider to move their factories to UK, and make BJ cleanner.

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  • 24. At 1:25pm on 28 Jul 2008, Inherent wrote:

    a lot gets said of the air-pollution at beijing;what got done at L.A. don't say the air was clear.that's when I first heard the word SMOG

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  • 25. At 03:10am on 02 Aug 2008, neoning wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

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