By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 11, 2007
BEIJING, Aug. 10 -- Despite official hesitation, more than a million cars will be barred from Beijing's streets next week in a test of radical anti-pollution measures for next summer's Olympic Games, the city announced Friday.
The sweeping restrictions, set for Aug. 17 to Aug. 20, illustrate China's determination to be seen, at home and abroad, as doing its utmost to combat the capital's noxious air pollution in preparation for the Games.
The Communist Party government has vowed to make the Beijing Olympics a success, hoping they will become a shining moment in China's emergence on the world stage. But Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, suggested Wednesday that some events, such as long-distance races, might have to be postponed if smog is too heavy during the competition.
Rogge's comment, in a CNN interview, diverged from repeated assurances by Beijing officials that air quality here is improving and will be acceptable for the two-week Olympic period starting Aug. 8, 2008. Wang Wei, an executive vice president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, reiterated the assurances at a news conference two days before Rogge's warning.
As Wang spoke, however, the city was blanketed by a thick haze of humidity, dust and exhaust fumes. The pollution was also visible during ceremonies televised worldwide from Tiananmen Square on Wednesday evening to launch the one-year countdown.
Beijing's Olympic committee has pledged that cars will be restricted during the Games as one of several steps to reduce pollution, predicting that a third of the 3 million vehicles ordinarily on the capital's streets would be banned. Officials from the committee and the Beijing traffic department said last month that a test ban would probably be enforced this Aug. 7 to Aug. 20, roughly matching next year's Olympic period. But that plan was rejected and next week's four-day test -- including a weekend -- was announced instead.
Olympic anti-pollution planners had sought a week-long test, including workdays as well as a weekend, according to He Kebin, a professor in Tsinghua University's environmental science and engineering department and an adviser to the planners. But the government cut it back, he said, out of concern for Beijing commuters.
"I think people's lives will indeed be affected because of the traffic controls from Aug. 17 to Aug. 20, and more people's lives will be affected during the 2008 Olympics," He said. "But many Chinese people have said they would be willing to sacrifice convenience for a clean 2008 Olympics."
Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau, told reporters that only cars with license plates ending in odd numbers will be allowed on the streets Aug. 17, only those with even numbers will be allowed Aug. 18, and so on through Aug. 20. There will be even stiffer restrictions on government cars.
Police cars, taxis, ambulances and buses will not be affected, he said. And Liu Xiaoming, deputy director of the city's transport committee, promised increased bus and subway service during the test period.
The test measures will keep up to 1.3 million cars off the road, Du predicted. While restrictions are in force, experts will conduct tests around the city to see how much pollution is reduced, he added.
Environmental activists have long urged Beijing officials to cut the number of cars on the streets, which increases by 1,000 each day. But despite acknowledging that pollution is a major problem, the government has been reluctant to act. One reason is the economic clout of the auto industry. Another is that buying a car is a big part of the march toward middle-class ease on which the Communist Party has based its rule in recent years.
Officials nevertheless have high hopes for next week's experiment because pollution dropped significantly during November's Sino-African summit, when police restricted the number of private cars to allow participants to escape traffic jams.
Beijing drivers, who endure some of the world's most clogged streets in addition to the foul air, said they could see the logic of banning cars for the Olympics, but they were quick to point out that many suburbanites are forced to drive to work because of infrequent bus service in outlying areas.
"At least the government is trying, which is good news," said Deng Xiaorong, an editor.
"It's hard for those colleagues who live far away from the company," objected Li Haibin, a cellphone engineer.
Zhang Ge, a computer salesman who lives in the outer suburbs, said officials had come up with a merely cosmetic solution to Beijing's long-term pollution problem as a way to please foreigners coming for the Olympics. What is needed is a long-term solution, he said.
"And no one mentioned what the punishment will be if we violate the rule," he added. "Is it coercive or voluntary? Few people will follow the rule if there is no sanction. Anyway, I will drive even if they punish me during the test period, because I really need a car."