BEIJING - Less than a decade ago, this city was an industrial wasteland. The sky could be seen from Beijing's ancient monuments less than a third of the year. Nearby lakes were so contaminated that they couldn't be used to water crops. And children were warned not to play outside in the noxious air.
So when China applied to host the 2008 Olympics, it encountered deep skepticism about its ability to pull off the feat in one of the world's most populous and polluted cities. There was real concern about athletes choking on chemical-laden air as they ran the 100-meter dash.
Seven years and $40 billion later, the Chinese have had remarkable success on many fronts. Practically every construction project is running ahead of schedule. The Chinese can brag of heroic feats of logistics and engineering: the "bird's nest" latticework of the 91,000-seat Olympic Stadium, the shimmering blue skin of the Water Cube aquatics center, a 70-mile high-speed railway, four new subway lines, an energy-efficient airport terminal.
But Beijing still has not conquered its pollution. Nearly 50 years after Mao Zedong's "war on nature" felled trees to make room for steel plants in the administrative capital and reversed rivers to provide irrigation, the Chinese government is finding that undoing the environmental damage and turning Beijing into a green showcase in time for the Olympics is no small task. China has only 16 months before 550,000 overseas visitors pile into a city of more than 15 million.
"Beijing has made significant progress compared to a few years ago, but just by looking outside you can see the pollution is still very bad," said Lo Sze Ping, campaign director for Greenpeace China. As he spoke, an acrid gray haze hung over the city.
Air pollution was greatly reduced in the initial years of Beijing's cleanup campaign, and by 2002 the number of "blue sky days" nearly doubled, to more than 200. Now, levels of ozone and other pollutants meet international norms. But for the past two years, fine soot in the air has failed to dissipate and still hasn't reached acceptable levels.
Several hundred million trees have been in the capital, but moths descended on them, stripping much of the foliage that was supposed to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. And despite efforts to conserve water and process sewage more thoroughly, the most recent tests of nearby rivers and lakes showed that many are still badly polluted.
Proud of progress Chinese environmental officers say they are proud of their progress and that Beijing should be judged not by international standards but by how much it has improved.
"People who come here for the first time feel that the environment and the air is not good," said Yu Xiaoxuan, deputy director for construction and environment for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games. "But they do not know how bad the pollution was several years ago."
Longtime Beijing residents say the change is striking. Bo Guoping, 60, a retired factory worker who on a recent weekend was flying a kite in one of the city's new parks with her grandson, remarked: "These days, we can see the sky. Before, it was all gray."
Members of the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said how impressed they are with China's progress but have singled out air pollution as a challenge. Just this month on a visit to Beijing, IOC Vice Chairman Ludmilla Linberg urged city officials to further improve air quality.
Beijing is a 65-square-mile expanse of flatland surrounded by a desert that is fast encroaching because of massive deforestation. It wasn't until 2000, when the city was applying to host the Olympics, that the government began to take seriously the environmental consequences of its actions. That summer, a series of ferocious sandstorms hit, turning the skies yellow, closing the airport and filling hospitals with people who couldn't breathe. Even the state-run media lambasted the government for failing to anticipate the problem.
Redirected river In its application to host the Olympics, China outlined more than 50 measures to improve environmental conditions. Beijing officials have been moving rivers and mountains since. Chunks of mountains in the northwest were blown up and the soil was moved to grow trees and greenery elsewhere. A river from a neighboring province is being redirected into Beijing to supply extra water.
About 190 steel, cement, chemical, paper and other factories have been dismantled piece by piece and moved away from the city and surrounding areas. Nearly 680 mines in the vicinity have been shut down. Some 4,000 buses and 30,000 taxis with high emissions were retired, and the government is discouraging driving.
A big question has been whether industry and construction around Beijing will be shut down during the Games -- a move that experts say would go a long way toward improving air quality, at least temporarily, but that corporations oppose.
Capital Iron and Steel, one of Beijing's largest polluters, recently announced that it would operate at "minimum levels," rather than close, setting off worry that other plants may follow its example.
Some gestures are small and gimmicky. The Chinese are using recycled paper to build desks in the Olympic Village, and they're stripping menus of dishes based on threatened wildlife, such as shark fin soup.
Other steps involve time and money. The Beijing municipal government has pledged $13 billion for environmental cleanup and protection.
Crews have been working seven-day weeks for more than five years to make sure major construction is completed this fall, so dust can settle before the athletes arrive.
Beijing is planting three walls of trees around the city that include cypress, Chinese scholar trees, magnolias, Dragon spruces -- nearly 100 species. These green barriers not only change the look of Beijing but also defend against the desert, said Wang Sumei, deputy director general of the Capital Forestation Commission.
More trees On a recent weekday afternoon in the city's northwestern Haidian district, Zhang Xuanxing was directing a team of 20 workers planting trees in an area already full of them. Their goal that day: add 150 myrtles, with their distinctive white blossoms.
"The goal is to beautify the environment and clarify the air," said Zhang, 55, quoting one of the countless slogans Beijing has been promoting. In all, by the time the Olympics begin Aug. 8, 2008, 300 million trees will have been planted, some on tops of buildings.
According to internal Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee documents described to The Washington Post, the city hopes to increase clean-energy usage in homes fivefold, make sure 80 to 90 percent of streetlights around Olympic venues are solar-powered and nearly double the capacity of the subway.
Even with the improvements, however, environmental experts say they have mixed feelings.
Some steps the city has taken are only stopgap measures, akin to hiding the dirty laundry in the closet before guests arrive. "Moving factories outside of Beijing doesn't mean much for solving China's environmental crisis," said Sun Shan, director of Conservation International in China.
Particles in Beijing's air are still 40 to 50 percent worse than in Los Angeles, the most polluted city in the United States. Fu Lixin, director of the Air Pollution Research Institute at Tsinghua University, who is advising the Beijing government, said if pollution is severe, Olympic events could be put off until later in the day or even moved to another venue. The government is prepared to take radical measures such as seeding clouds to create rain, clearing the air.
"Time is too short," he said. "I don't think it's realistic for Beijing to meet international standards of air pollution. But people should know the whole city is supporting and trying their best."
Staff researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.