China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bustling Beijing gives London an Olympic lesson

Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Tuesday September 5, 2006
The Guardian

On the northern outskirts of Beijing, an army of migrant workers is twisting and welding a 100,000-tonne tangle of steel into a stadium-sized bird's nest. A short sprint away, the scaffold wrapping of a vast swimming centre has been partly peeled away to reveal a translucent bubble-like coating. Everywhere thickets of cranes are raising up sports halls, athletes' dormitories and guest hotels.

The 2008 Olympics is shaping up to be one of the most spectacular festivals in human history - which could make it a hard act to follow for London in 2012. But on her first visit to China as minister for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell said yesterday that the UK welcomed the competition. "China is ambitious almost in a way no country has ever been in the way we are seeing the regeneration of probably no less than a third of Beijing," she said during a visit to the £246m national stadium, which is 80% complete with two years remaining until the Olympics.

But London, she said, was spending almost the same amount on its showcase venues. "Everyone involved in London has a sense of enthusiasm and the absolute determination to be the best. That is the promise that we made."

Ms Jowell's visit is the latest in a series of increasingly frequent cooperative exchanges between the two Olympic cities. Although London may be spending a similar amount on its stadiums, the money goes a lot further in Beijing, where land can be summarily requisitioned and labourers toil for little more than 1,000 yuan (£70) a month. With no unions, they can also be made to work round the clock, which means fewer time overruns. The bird's nest stadium, above - designed by Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron in collaboration with China's Institute of Architecture Design and Research - is on schedule for completion at the end of next year. "The current situation matches our plan very well. I am confident that we will finish in time," said Zhang Hengli, the deputy general manager of the stadium. "Up to now we have not had even the smallest accident."

Other facilities, such as the £80m swimming centre are also taking shape without any of the delays that plagued preparations for Athens in 2004.

But the sporting facilities are only part of Beijing's Olympic project. Across the city, old hutongs - narrow residential alleyways - have been demolished to make way for new or widened streets, including a motorway and two ring roads. Included in new railway track is a line to the airport, where workers are building the world's biggest airport terminal.

No one doubts the buildings will be ready on time, but there are questions about the software, the environment and relations with the media.

Pollution is a bigger challenge. China has the highest sulphur dioxide emissions in the world and Beijing is often shrouded in smog. City officials insist, however, that by 2008 the air quality will reach internationally acceptable standards on two out of in every three days.

As part of a multimillion-pound effort to clean the skies, the worst-offending factories have been relocated and many coal-fired homes converted to gas. For the duration of the games, traffic will be restricted and construction sites ordered to halt work. Hundreds of public toilets are being rebuilt, thousands of dustbins will be added to the city's streets and 400 miles of sewerage pipes will be renovated.

One big unanswered question concerns arrangements for the tens of thousands of foreign journalists expected to cover the Olympics. Under current regulations, overseas correspondents are not free to make reporting trips outside of Beijing without permission. In bidding for the games, officials said the media would be free to cover all aspects of life in China.

Mrs Jowell said she would raise this issue with her counterparts in Beijing: "I will be talking about freedom of speech to the organising committee tomorrow. I think that it's very important that the commitments that have been made as part of the bidding for the games will be honoured."

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