July 2008

Beijing air quality is good
Beijing air quality was “good” today, but how about during the Olympics?

Drivers on Beijing’s roads are experiencing a pleasant development as roads are suddenly far less congested due to new traffic regulations that only allow drivers to take to the roads every other day according to whether they have an even or odd numbered plate. Of course, if you really want to drive every day this may not be a welcome development, but for the rest of us it is great! The measures are the latest of many efforts by the Beijing government to clean up the air for the Olympics. Blue Sky Olympics has been a highly touted catch phrase for years, and it seems they may get their wish after all.

Soon after being awarded the games in 2002, the Beijing municipal government and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the Olympiad (BOCOG) released an official action plan to meet World Health Organization requirements for concentrations of greenhouse gasses and particulate matter in the urban atmosphere and to reduce reliance on coal as a primary energy source. Pollution-free energies are expected to be the main fuels used during the Olympics, with solar-power fueling up to 90 percent of the street lamps and the heating of the bath water in the Olympic Village during the games.Solar, wind and geothermal power are also being used to power the Olympic Games.The energy mix readjustment plan called for the share of clean and efficient energy to account for over 80 percent of the final energy consumption mix.The aim has been for Beijing to showcase world top-level air quality during the Olympic Games. Judging from today’s weather, they may pull it off. Judging from a few weeks back, it would be a disaster.

Greening up a city the size of Beijing in such a short time frame has been no small feat. As Beijing continues its rapid growth, demand for energy continues to rise. Domestic supply has increased with the addition of a new gas-fired power generation plant, but the vast majority of Beijing’s energy needs must be met from outside, primarily from northern China. The Chinese central government and the Beijing municipal government have dictated that coal consumption absolutely must be reduced. There are currently several projects underway to boost Beijing’s natural gas production and storage capacity. Additionally, renewable energy technologies such as solar, geo-thermal, wind, bio-mass and hydro are actively promoted by the government. Alternative technologies for transport are also high in priority.

In its effort to clean up the air, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau has taken steps to reduce air pollution caused by industrial smoke from burning coal, and has not been averse to showing some teeth to get the message across. Last year, when inspectors noticed heavy black smoke pouring out of the chimney of Jingneng Thermo-electric Plant, they promptly shut the plant down for inspection, which revealed that an electric dust remover had broken down and hadn’t been replaced. As no moves to correct the problem were made until it was noticed by the inspectors, punitive measures were taken against the factory, signaling others major polluters that the local climate had definitely changed. The bureau then published a list of the 28 worst offenders in Beijing and also strengthened penalties on the illegal use of stove coal.

Air quality has been improving through the introduction of more energy efficient buses. The Beijing municipal government has renewed about 8,000 buses for the 2008 Olympic Games. The old black smoke spewing buses are now a distant bad memory, and the new buses are mighty comfortable indeed, especially the air conditioned ones! As part of Beijing’s effort to cut down fuel consumption and reduce emissions, 50 energy-efficient buses using hydraulic hybrid vehicle (HHV) technology have been experimentally operating on the streets of Beijing. HHVs incorporate special devices to absorb and deposit energy in the process of braking, and release the energy when the vehicles restart or accelerate, ideal for city buses which experience frequent braking and restarting. The hydraulic devices can be installed in nearly any vehicle without major modification of their structure or engine. It is hoped that the experimental HHV buses can reduce fuel consumption by greater than 30 percent and reduce 20 to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel cell bus devloped by Tsinghua University
Hydrogen fuel cell bus developed by Tsinghua University. Did I spot one on the streets today?!

The 2008 Olympic Games will also showcase energy-efficient hybrid electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles, and pure electric vehicles. US-based General Motors has donated a zero-emissions electric bus for use during the Olympics. Visitors and residents of the Olympic Village will witness the demonstration of a new hydrogen technology in five buses that run on a mix of hydrogen and natural gas. In an interesting coincidence, I spotted an electric bus on the street in the Financial District today! Actually, i heard it first, as it made the distinct sound of an electric bus, but there were no overhead cables about, so I looked closely at the bus and noticed the EV label! While some may debate that as the bus is powered from the grid it doesn’t actually reduce GHG, it does improve air quality in the city. Of course, maybe the one I spotted today was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell!

In addition to efforts such as substituting natural gas, electricity and liquid petroleum gas for coal as a household heating and cooking fuel, shutting down coking ovens in big industrial plants and substituting natural gas for coal in some electricity and heating plants, city officials have actively encouraged installation of highly efficient natural gas-burning micro-turbine power generators that can provide cooling, heating and electricity for large buildings without drawing power from the grid.

Perhaps the greenest of all of the efforts by city planners are the various tree-planting projects throughout the capital and vicinity, including the ongoing development of a protective greenbelt separating north China from the surrounding desert which frequently sends dusty winds into the city. To date, the Capital Greening Commission, in cooperation with various departments of the Central Government and the National Forestation Commission, has planted thousands of trees.
The ongoing efforts to beautify the city are definitely appreciated! Beijing has also cleaned up over 40 kilometers of rivers for the event, and they are vastly improved indeed! Whatever feelings Beijing residents may have toward the Olympic Games themselves, reforms such as these surely come as a breath of fresh air.

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Olympic security forces training
Olympic security forces training in Qinghuandao

Though the Chinese media will surely present the image of a city enraptured with Olympic Spirit to the rest of China, and less importantly, to the world, there may very well be far more frowns on citizen’s faces throughout the long-anticipated Beijing Olympiad than all the euphoric smiles displayed incessantly on every TV screen, in every bus, on every train, in every elevator, and on every huge screen throughout the city combined. To be sure, every victorious moment will be repeated ad infinitum in a media frenzy likely to be second only to that of the recent tragic Sichuan earthquakes. If Liu Xiang manages to overcome what may well be the heaviest Olympic pressure ever felt by any single individual and clinches gold, the glorious moment will surely become the symbol of China’s greatness for a generation. To be sure, the Beijing Olympics are a great source of national pride for the whole of China! So, what does it matter if a few people are inconvenienced in the process? With the imminent arrival of the games in Beijing, the inconveniences are mounting daily, along with unhappy faces.

Among the first to feel the crunch were many of China’s foreign residents who suddenly found that due to new visa restrictions they had to return to their home country to apply for a new visa, which they very likely wouldn’t get. At least not the one-year multiple entry visa they were used to. Even famous celebrities like Canadian Dashan were not immune, a fact which he reportedly lamented after an unexpected trip back to Canada when his visa renewal was denied in Korea.

The Olympics are no longer touted as an opportunity to host the world. In fact, due to visa restrictions and heightened security measures, hotels throughout China are reporting the worst occupancy rates since SARS. Journalists who have been China regulars for years have suddenly found out that they are not invited to the party, seemingly along with anyone else who has ever had an unkind word to say about the current regime. In fact, it seems that this is likely to be one fancy part in which the world is sent invitations and then told after they RSVP that they are not actually able to attend.

From July 1st, many small shop and restaurant owners felt the heat as they were informed that there shops were to be closed “for security reasons” until September. Nearly every shop near subway stations and Olympic venues that no doubt anticipated high profits during the season were disappointed to find that they would instead lose a summer’s worth of profits. For many restaurants, that can be a death sentence. For those of us who are denied good eats and entertainment at our favorite establishments, it is merely a tedious bore.

Many of the Beijing residents most affected are not actually “Beijingers” at all, but the fifth of the population of the capital that is made up of migrant workers, who have lost their livelihood as construction sites have shut down in July to clear the air for August (which, I must say, is a pleasant development for the rest of us) as well as hundreds of small dives, noodle shops and BBQ stands that feed them. Many have returned to the countryside, likely in keeping with unstated government objectives.

Most recently felt by all Beijing residents are the invasive security measures. Everyone must undergo security checks when getting on the subway, including bag checks and occasional body checks. Intercity rail transport is purportedly even worse. Fully armed SWAT teams are now visible throughout the city. Tank-like vehicles are showing up underneath major flyovers on the ring roads. For the first time in over five years, I have seen helicopters over Beijing skies! While these measures are understandable in light of genuine security issues, it is still burdensome for Beijing residents who couldn’t care less about the games.

Security measures are encroaching upon the lives of ordinary Beijing citizens in surprising ways. I have heard one account that all teachers for a certain university have been told that they must report to their campus every day throughout the Olympics just “in case” something happens, so that they will be available to offer assistance. I’m not sure how many universities this affects, but I can just imagine what my reaction would be if someone told me that I had to give up my hard-earned summer vacation to sit in an office doing nothing just “in case” something happens!!

Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei, co-designer of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium eloquently summed up the angst felt by many Beijingers in a blog post that was subsequently translated by China Digital Times.

An Olympics far from the will of the people and the spirit of freedom, a national ceremony without the inspiration of the citizenry, a myth so far away from modern civilization, the end result will be endless nonsense and a bore. The reason is simple: In this world no autocracy can pretend to be the joy of democracy, nor can it masquerade as harmony and happiness. No one can win the people’s support through deceit and betrayal.

“One World” — What world? No democracy, no human rights, no justice or equality, only deceit and betrayal.
“One Dream” — What dream? More corrupt officials, more shady deals, continued lies and questionable prosperity.

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Chinese Facebook
Chinese language version of Facebook

A little more than a week after the launch of the simplified Chinese Facebook site, users all across China, including yours truly, are reporting that they are unable to access Facebook. Having had to endure the Great Firewall of China for over five years now, I am quite familiar with the slight of DNS error technique that can be observed in the status messages at the bottom of the Firefox browser when attempting to access the typical blocked site, and the phenomenon is definitely observable when attempting to access Facebook. The interesting thing is that I have seen similar errors on and off for the past couple of months. Usually just closing the instance of the browser and opening a new one will fix it, but not today. This time it appears it may be for keeps. Or not. It is never a simple task to attempt to predict how the censor goons will behave.

I suppose I should question why it would really bother me so much that Facebook is blocked. I am actually surprised at how accustomed I have become to the social network, to the point that I would definitely feel deprived if I was unable to access it. Compare this with my first social networking site, Tribe, that I have pretty much abandoned after spending hours a day every day for months on end. What is it I wonder? I believe the difference is that a good number of my friends on Facebook are my real flesh and blood friends, rather than mere Internet-only “friends”, although I have a fair number of those as well. Somehow, I enjoy the news feed that keeps me updated on the goings on of my circle of friends, without having to actually meet them and and talk to them to find these things out. Is this progress? I wonder. Certainly the amount of “flesh time” I spend with most of my Facebook friends is relatively low, so, is it right that I am so up to date on their goings on? Well, actually, I rarely follow the stories in the news feed, but I do find it far more interesting than the news offered by, say, CNN, and, in fact, many of the most interesting stories I find on the Internet these days are from links posted by friends on Facebook.

Facebook is many things to many people. To me, it sometimes seems like little more than the ultimate stalking utility. Yet, I have exchanged some of the most meaningful philosophical conversations of my life here as well, although, Tribe is really hard to beat on that front. So, the bottom line is… Why block it? Is it really that subversive? Who knows? I just hope that like Wikipedia, the blockages will come and go. But mostly go. Facebook through a proxy is tedious in the extreme.

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