BEIJING—Forget driving every day, and don’t plan on getting married. Don’t think about applying for a passport, or a visa, or registering your business either—those offices will be closed. You won’t be able to purchase fireworks, or go to a gas station with a jerrycan and buy fuel.
Your local bank might be closed, and your school-age kids will probably be on vacation. But don’t plan to take them swimming at the Water Cube; that distinctive aquatic center built during the 2008 Beijing Olympics is going to be shut.
Hopefully, no one in your family will get sick, because many hospitals will be operating on half-day schedules.
Such are the inconveniences residents of Beijing are facing as China hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, which kicked off on Wednesday and runs through November 12. President Xi Jinping will welcome about 20 global leaders, including President Barack Obama, to the event, and authorities in the capital are pulling out all the stops to ensure a secure, smogless, traffic-free summit.
Job No. 1 has been clearing the capital’s notoriously polluted skies. More than 800 factories—some several hundred miles away—have been ordered to close.
Construction sites in and around the capital, which can generate haze-inducing dust, have been shut down. Municipal officials have instituted traffic restrictions lasting 10 days, allowing personal cars on the road only every other day, based on whether the license plate ends in an odd or even number.
To further reduce traffic and pollution, authorities have given six-day vacations to tens of thousands of civil servants and employees at state-owned enterprises, as well as to teachers.
Government workers as far away as Langfang (31 miles southeast) and Baoding (87 miles southwest) have also been granted time off. Some private businesses have followed suit.
Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli has called ensuring clean air for meeting the “priority of priorities,” and officials with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences said they expect the measures will curb pollutants in the region by 30 percent to 40 percent.
Li Shuo, Greenpeace East Asia’s senior climate and energy policy officer, said such extensive measures haven’t been seen since the city hosted the Summer Olympics more than six years ago. The capital, however, experienced four waves of intense pollution in October, during which smog levels reached “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” levels and choked the city for days on end.
Environmental experts blamed the episodes on three factors: agricultural fires as farmers set fields ablaze after harvest season; weather patterns that trapped air over Beijing; and intense industrial emissions and coal burning as factories ramped up activities after the October 1 to 7 National Day holiday and worked overtime ahead of the forced closures expected during the Apec gathering.
Despite the thick, toxic haze, authorities never once raised the city’s pollution alert level to “red,” which would mandate school closures and odd-even license plate driving restrictions, among other measures.
That has led to complaints that officials care more about the lungs of foreign leaders than those of Chinese citizens.
“Safe air should not only be reserved for distinguished guests, but for every resident of the city,” Li said. “It is a shame that Beijing hasn’t initiated a single red alert for its own residents this year, despite three ‘airpocalypses’ that qualified as such by its own metrics.”
A week ago, authorities at the Ministry of Environmental Protection took the extraordinary step of publicly identifying about a dozen facilities, including a coal mine, an aluminum plant and a glass factory, that were found to be emitting heavy amounts of pollution.
The ministry said it sent 15 teams to inspect suspected polluters as far away as Inner Mongolia and Shandong provinces, and even sent drones on sorties to get an aerial view of the problem.
One of the facilities named and shamed was the Jinan Zhangqiu Hua Ming Cement factory. Reached by phone, a man surnamed Lu from the plant’s environmental protection department said the factory would be closed for 40 days starting October 30, with most of the 500 employees off work. “We thought it is a great opportunity to combine the Apec environmental-protection measures with our [annual] year-end maintenance,” he said. In the Huairou district on Beijing’s northern outskirts, where Obama and other leaders will gather near the scenic Yanqi Lake, authorities aren’t stopping there. All buses in the district have been upgraded to clean-energy models and electric taxis have been deployed to the area.
While the skies are getting spiffed up, so is the landscape. In Huairou, authorities have planted copious amounts of flowers and trees, with horticultural experts choosing varieties, such as pines that are still green in November.
Along the Avenue of Central Peace in the heart of Beijing, large Apec-themed topiary-style displays, many of them 20 feet tall, adorn almost every major intersection.
Lampposts throughout the city center have been hung with Apec banners. Giant Apec billboards tout the conference buzzwords: “Cooperation,” “Win-Win,” “Development” and “Prosperity.” China isn’t saying how much it’s spending to ensure a picture-perfect summit for the approximately 16,000 registered participants and several thousand journalists. But even the Global Times, an often stridently nationalistic tabloid newspaper owned by the Communist Party, has questioned the wisdom of engineering a Potemkin Beijing to present to the world.
Ramping up security measures is a fine idea, but “we don’t need a kind of superficial and temporary cleanliness,” the paper said in a commentary, criticizing efforts to sweep fritter vendors and barbecue-skewer sellers off the streets. “Locals don’t like that kind of ‘germ-less’ Beijing, and foreigners won’t either.”
Moreover, the paper recalled the public-relations nightmare Chinese officials faced when Western reporters learned that a 7-year-old with crooked teeth was deemed unpresentable to sing at the Olympic opening ceremony and a “cuter” 9-year-old instead lip-synced her rendition of “Ode to the Motherland.” The journalists “tried to exploit that story as much as they could,” the paper said, warning that reporters covering Apec will, likewise, be “very interested in what kind of ‘executive measures’ the Chinese government has implemented” for the summit.
Such cautionary words, though, have seemed to do little to curb bureaucrats’ zeal to burnish Beijing’s image before the Apec forum. In an open letter to the city’s nearly 20 million inhabitants that was released on Saturday, the municipal Communist Party committee and the local government asked citizens to be understanding about the inconveniences caused by the summit measures.
But the communiqué focused mainly on the “responsibility” of all Beijingers to “respond to the call of the party and the government to carry on the glorious tradition of the capital, to be a good host, to warmly welcome guests, to win glory for the capital, to guarantee good service at the meeting [and] to create a clean and beautiful environment and a peaceful, festive, lively and social atmosphere.” When Monday dawned in Beijing and many of the summit restrictions started to kick in, residents could at least take heart that their sacrifices were having an effect. As the sun rose in a brilliant blue sky, the air-quality index dropped deep into rarely seen “good” territory, and the fall air was crisper and cleaner than it had been in weeks.
Julie Makinen | Los Angeles Times/MCT
Image credits: Julie Makinen/Los Angeles Times/MCT