China Environmental News Digest

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Cabbies with garlic breath targeted in Beijing’s Olympic cleanup

7:37pm Saturday 28th April 2007

Sunday Herald

CONTAMINATED air and chronic traffic congestion remain serious worries 16 months ahead of Beijing 2008, an international inspection team has concluded.

Olympic organisers have kept all their promises but a booming national economy threatens to pollute the air quicker than a local solution can be found, said International Olympic Committee (IOC) co-ordination commission chair- man Heinz Verbruggen, "Beijing's Olympic committee wins praise from IOC" ran the official China Daily headline, as local media ignored the pollution warning and focused instead on a much more traditional concern: face.

In a country where most bus and train commuters routinely behave like it's last orders at a happy-hour bar, city authorities have designated the 11th day of each month as "Queue-up Day".

A "smile" campaign has also been launched for shopkeepers and other service industry workers welcoming foreigners. This week, a 12-item evaluation chart was published for taxi drivers: Male drivers must cut their hair short and female drivers should avoid dangly earrings or "odd" bright red or blonde hair. And there's to be no more spitting, littering or overcharging.

"Taxi drivers are a window through which the foreigners will see Beijing, and we need to further regulate their services," announced Liu Xiaoming, vice-director of the Beijing Transport Commission. Sporting a neatly cropped bowl haircut, crisp white shirt and ill-fitting dark suit, Liu sweated slightly under the media spotlight.

Body odour and a post-meal "garlic smell" inside cabs were persistent issues in written complaints from foreign officials and executives said his colleague, Liu Tongliang.

"On top of that, many drivers love to smoke," said Liu Tongliang. "Some sensitive female passengers smell it, then refuse to get in the car."

So sensitive are the Lius about making the right impression upon the estimated 550,000 overseas Olympic visitors next year that the bureau is dispatching "undercover passengers" to sniff out the city's 277 cab firms. Rankings will be published, with the biggest stinker of all shut down.

To tackle pollution, around 680 mines and 200 steel, cement, chemical, paper and other factories have been shut down since the Beijing bid triumphed on July 13, 2001. Heavy polluter Capital Iron and Steel Group and 190 smaller factories have also been dismantled and moved out of the capital. More than 30,000 old taxis and 3900 old diesel-powered buses have been phased out. Officials plan to take around one million of Beijing's 3.3 million cars temporarily off the roads, and are close to completing two new subway lines.

In total, the city has spent about 100 billion yuan (£6.5bn) on curbing polluting industries and planting trees, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration of China. The result is that Beijing last year enjoyed 241 so-called "blue-sky" days, compared with 100 a decade ago.

Verbruggen praised organisers for this "considerable progress" and "magnificent" venues such as the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium and the neighbouring National Aquatics Centre, known as the "Water Cube".

"It's almost an emotional feeling that you have when you imagine that in some 470 days, athletes will be able to perform in this magnificent environment," he said.

Just as long as they can breathe, that is. Two runners died and 11 ended up in hospital during the 2004 Beijing marathon, where amateurs complained that no drinking water was made available after the 16-mile mark.

China's booming economy was causing an "enormous amount of construction sites, and a dust problem," said Verbruggen. "This is of the utmost importance to the athletes, who are the most important part of the Games."

He called for a contingency plan. A landmark study published this month by a joint team of Chinese and US scientists concluded that even the best control measures in the world would not be enough coming from Beijing alone.

Much of the smog originates out of town, drifting from heavier industrial urban neighbours like Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Qingdao, Jinan and Taiyuan, according to researchers.

Beijing Mayor Wang Qishen has reportedly cited this study in pressing central government to implement more stringent regional control programmes to ensure Beijing meets its air quality goals for 2008. There are 474 days left. Perhaps don't hold your breath.

"The air is not good enough yet," said IOC vice president Gunilla Lindberg during her visit to the Chinese capital last week. "And the traffic at the moment is terrible."

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