The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Letter to Obama: Don’t be fooled if Beijing’s skies are blue

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When President Obama arrives in Beijing in November for an important Asia-Pacific summit, he shouldn't be surprised if the skies are a brilliant blue.

The Chinese government is mounting a concerted campaign to make sure the capital’s infamous smog is under control when Obama and regional heads of state arrive for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. It is an operation similar in scale to that mounted for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Hundreds of factories in Beijing and surrounding provinces are being told to close down for 12 days from Nov. 1. Steel production in the neighboring province of Hebei is expected to fall by 10 percent in November, Bloomberg reported, while the province has helpfully vowed to keep household heating at “the lowest acceptable level” during the summit. Beijing’s government, meanwhile, has ordered a week-long break Nov. 7 to 12, with schools told to close and cars ordered off the roads.

But no one should be fooled. Despite the government’s 2013 declaration of a “war on pollution,” there is no sign yet of an improvement in air quality in Beijing, environmentalists say.

Indeed, October has been a particularly ugly month. It began with what was dubbed Beijing’s second “airpocalypse” of the year, with air quality frequently reaching “hazardous” levels for three days.The Brazilian soccer team, here to play a friendly match against Argentina at the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, were reportedly confined to their hotel rooms for most of their time there, advised not to venture out apart from brief training sessions.

Ten days later, smog enveloped the Beijing Marathon. Images of runners wearing face masks proliferated on the Internet, and many competitors simply withdrew from the race.

The end of the month has, if anything, been worse, with air quality levels frequently “hazardous,” according to most international measures, and visibility dropping sharply.

There are many reasons for this. Experts blame the early October smog on the burning of agricultural waste after the autumn harvest, on unfavorable weather patterns, and on what Greenpeace calls the “post-holiday syndrome.” Factories and power stations, forced to shut down for the Golden Week national holiday at the start of October, ramped up production in the following week, sending unusually heavy doses of carcinogenic chemicals into the air.

Many residents of Beijing suspect that those same factories and power stations are still in overdrive, making up for losses they might incur during the APEC summit. Beijing’s residents, many people speculate, are paying the price now for next month’s cleaner air.

Last year, the Chinese government unveiled a $280 billion plan to improve air quality, including plans to curb coal use and vehicle emissions. But the challenge is immense and solutions far from immediate; so far, there has been little noticeable effect in the capital. Indeed, heavy polluters around Beijing continue to violate legal pollution standards with impunity, said Ma Jun of Beijing's Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, citing real-time data collated by his organization.

There is no evidence to directly link this month’s poisonous skies with the blue skies that are expected for the first half of November. But there is every reason to suppose that the air quality will start to deteriorate again as soon as Air Force One takes off, at the end of the Obama’s visit here.

Xu Jing contributed to this report.