Locals getting used to blue skies and starry nights as clean-air drive pays off


CHINA:Citizens of Beijing are enjoying excellent air quality, but airing controversial opinions remains as difficult as ever, writes Clifford Coonan

THE WONDERFUL changes wrought on the Chinese capital for the Olympic Games mean the quality of the air in Beijing is the best it's been in a decade, and so into the second week of the world's greatest sporting event, people are getting used to strange natural phenomena.

These include seeing the stars at night and blue skies by day; clouds untinged by yellow smog and air quality that is better than many European cities. Weather forecasters here have spoken of the sky being clear and overcast, an apparent contradiction, but a statement that makes perfect sense in a city hardened by years of foul pollution.

Beijing reported this month's eighth day of excellent air quality yesterday, with the city's Air Pollution Index (API) giving a Grade I reading.

The city has spent billions on cleaning up the air, closing factories and power stations and introducing drastic vehicle controls such as the two-month system to keep cars off the road on alternate days.

The deputy head of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection has forecast excellent or fairly good weather for the remainder of the Olympics and Paralympics, although another meteorologist said wind changes today could bring pollutants from adjacent cities, such as Tianjin.

While the air may be clearer, the chances of clearing the air over grievances against the Chinese government remain slight to non-existent, despite the presence of three designated areas in public parks for protest by those with beefs against the leadership, or who wish to raise issues of any kind. Every day the scene in Ritan Park, one of the three designated protest areas, is one of harmony and there is no whiff of dissent to spoil the Olympic party.

Last week, a Chinese activist from Fujian province was picked up by security officials when he went to check how his application to protest in the park against government corruption was coming along. Another applicant in Beijing, Zhang Wei, who planned to protest the demolition of her courtyard home in the ancient neighbourhood of Qianmen, was also detained, while land rights advocate Ge Yifei in Szuzhou was whisked out of the city as she filled out the form.

A foreign woman and her son who wished to protest against environment degradation came up against a polite wall of bureaucracy, requiring form after form. The woman was then told her son was too young, and that by the time she filled out another form, the Games would be over.

The level of politeness in the city has been cranked up dramatically, to the point where long-term residents can be surprised when someone who has never even looked their way in years of restaurant visits is suddenly murmuring "thank you".

That said, the widely trumpeted campaign about learning English has not been very successful, and foreigners are still finding it tough to negotiate the city as cabbies wrestle with English. I still have yet to meet a taxi driver who understands an address in English.

The big change has been that people are willing to try.