The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.
April 27, 2008 7:21 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Three concepts have - officially - colored preparations for the 2008 Beijing Games: 'People's Olympics,' 'Hi-tech Olympics' and 'Green Olympics.'
Beijing's commitment to environmental protection ahead of the Games may or may not impress come August. But a slew of ambitious 'green' campaigns have indisputably transformed the city and garnered international attention.
In 2005, BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad) signed a UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) agreement - pledging to curb air, water and noise pollution.
Since then, the city has scrapped coal-burning furnances, rolled out 'green' buses, booted dirty factories and capped auto emissions.
Last December, Beijing narrowly achieved its 2007 goal - 245 'blue sky days.' Beginning June 1, Chinese shoppers will pay for plastic bags - retailers caught giving bags away will be fined.
But Beijing and China's environmental woes continue.
About 1,200 new cars hit the street here each week - Beijing claims 3.5 million vehicles today, up a million from a few years ago. The city contains thousands of construction sites - all sources of particle pollution.
Various Olympic athletes have questioned Beijing's air quality. Concerned that the city's pollution could affect their performance and/or health, a handful may pull out of the 2008 Games entirely.
The UNEP issued Beijing a progress report last year, stating that "significant strides are being made to 'green' the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games," but withheld final judgment:
"Beijing has implemented a number of initiatives to improve its air quality and reduce pollution...and can boast significant achievements. Most of these initiatives will benefit the citizens of Beijing long after the Games have closed, provided that the impetus brought about by hosting the Olympics is continued, with Games-related measures being adopted and implemented on a long-term basis by the authorities...Air quality has improved for some of the monitored pollutants. However, it can take years to determine significant changes in air quality. It would appear that more effort may be needed to address the legitimate concerns of the International Olympic Committee and other stakeholders."
Before BOCOG adopted the concept 'Green Olympics,' dedicated professionals and volunteers were working to protect the city's environment. They've kept on. And, for better or worse, the 2008 Games have altered their world.
"If Beijing wants to remain a global city and China's cultural-political capital, the condition of its environment must improve," said Fei Xiaojing, who heads the volunteer group Green Student Forum (GSF). "Olympics or no - this is necessary. However, the Games have given our government a push."
"The government has instituted a number of concrete environmental measures to ensure a clean Olympics," Michael Zhao, Beijing coordinator of the International Fund for China's Environment (IFCE) said. "But the Games' most beneficial results are less tangible - common people here are thinking about the environment because they want the Olympics to be successful."
Beijing's top-down 'greening' has empowered students like Fei and served as a platform for Zhao's IFCE. GSF has partnered with city government on exciting projects; Olympic fever has helped IFCE raise funds abroad.
Yet Daniela Salaverry of Pacific Environment, an international NGO based in San Francisco, contends that the Games have failed to nourish grass-roots environmentalism. Both IFCE and Pacific Environment fund GSF.
"The Olympics are a natural 'news hug' - an opportunity for local groups to seek support," Salaverry said. "But the Games are limiting, too. Groups have leveraged the Olympics less than we in the West would think."
Top-down efforts to better Beijing's environment were designed with the 2008 Games in mind. According to Salaverry, Chinese activists are engaged long-term.
They also wield less power than environmentalists in America. Beijing has allowed groups like GSF to grow - providing they don't push too hard.
"What's interesting is that there may be more space for activists after the Olympics," said Salaverry. "No one here wants to politicize and ruin the Games - so it's sensitive right now on the ground."
GSF has collaborated with government nonetheless, organizing students against car pollution. Every year, GSF volunteers tour Beijing by bicycle, wearing Olympic-themed t-shirts to promote 'green' awareness. Beijing's Enviromental Education center backs the event.
"It's true - NGOs must consider environmental protection long-term," Fei admitted. "But there's nothing wrong with the concept 'Green Olympics.' The government has made environmental protection a big deal in the news and on TV. No single NGO could have done that. We're in favor of cooperation."
A team of Beijing university students established GSF in 1996 as an umbrella organization. Most Chinese universities host 'green' clubs - some more active than others. GSF's founding members traveled to southwest China hoping to save the endangered Golden Monkey.
"In high school I really liked languages," said Fei, a People's University of China second-year graduate student. "But I also watched the Discovery Channel. Now I am very passionate about protecting the environment. For me, that's how it all began."
By 2003 GSF developed into a known and respected organization - promoting environmental protection among Beijing youth. Today the group is comprised of 20 volunteer members, representing seven area universities.
"We're majoring in different subjects," Fei said. "We bring different skills to GSF - from law to computer technology. And we're good friends. What we share is a desire to make a change and protect our environment."
GSF receives support from Pacific Environment and IFCE, two non-profits. Pacific Environment is 21 years old, a veteran of community development and forest protection in Siberia.
A self-billed 'watchdog/innovator/advocate/facilitator/catalyst/investor' Pacific Environment launched its China program in 2001. Now the organization helps train and finance 11 Chinese groups.
A Pacific Environment partner in Lanzhou saved that city's electric cars. Another partner, Green Anhui, counseled houseboat fishermen on the scummy Huai River - turning reporters onto an illegal battery dump.
"We send money and work with environmentalists seeking to professionalize," Salaverry said. "We answer their questions about international funders; we do a lot of networking - get Chinese groups talking to each other. We also promote collaboration between government and environmentalists at the local level."
"Host a 'Green Olympics,' build a 'green' homeland"
In Siberia, Pacific Environment worked to prevent a fire sale of natural resources following the Soviet Union's collapse. China's plight http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070901faessay86503/elizabeth-c-economy/the-great-leap-backward.html has challenged the organization.
"Here, we're encouraging civil participation - because conditions are already dire," explained Salaverry, Pacific Environment's China co-director. "Three hundred million Chinese lack access to clean drinking water."
A team of U.S.-educated Chinese, including Zhao, founded IFCE in 1996. Not only a funder, IFCE furthers environmental education and U.S.-China exchange. Next month, the organization will co-host a high-level U.S.-United Nations delegation to China.
"I came back to China from the U.S. for the first time when my father passed away, in 1993," Zhao said. "To me, the country looked like one big construction site. This was still in the early stages of China's development.
"We were concerned. We felt strongly that China could learn from industrialized nations' mistakes. Having lived in the U.S., we knew the costs of development."
Last month, IFCE kicked off a community health/environmental awareness program in Xian with pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. The program will eventually spread to Kunming, Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan.
Pacific Environment and IFCE don't staff the Chinese groups they fund. According to Salaverry, there are close to 4,000 environmental organizations operating in China - 300 in Beijing alone. Most depend on enthusiastic young people.
"In the future I'll work for an environmental NGO," said Fei. "But first I want to work in public relations at a large company. I think I'd gain a lot of perspective."
Fei joined GSF in 2005, while studying at Beijing's Forestry University. A year later, she agreed to head the group's training program. She stepped into GSF's top post last year.
"Beijing has so many environmental NGOs and government organizations - we had to carve ourselves a niche," Fei said. "We speak with young people about local problems. After we graduate, we'll go forth and multiply. We're environmental leaders."
Few Chinese schools teach environmentalism, although 'green' curricula are catching on.
"That's why the Olympics are great - they're raising awareness in China," Fei remarked. "I know that in the U.S., small children are taught conservation. That's not yet the case here. I wasn't until I was 20 years old."
IFCE holds an annual College Environmental Conference in Beijing, and has trained GSF members to conduct 'green' campus assessments and test for energy efficiency.
"The schools save millions - it's a win-win," Zhao said. "We're trying to enlighten China's students, so they'll be the driving force for change."
GSF, in particular, has championed Beijing's maligned waterways. With assistance from Pacific Environment, the organization began to check for pollution in 2003. GSF volunteers also surveyed riverside residents, dispensing advice and relaying concerns.
This year, the group will produce a hiker-friendly river map, highlighting historical sites and Beijing's endangered waterways.
"Have you visited our rivers? They're dirty," Fei exclaimed. "We've tested a bunch near Olympic sites - rivers that are sources of drinking water. It's important for these rivers to be clean, and not only for appearance's sake."
Some Beijing waterways carry industrial waste. Others choke on plastic bags and beer bottles. The city's lakes are drying up. Its underground aquifers are close to empty. Beijing is overpopulated - a water-poor municipality of 17 million.
Canals will pump 'emergency' water from neighboring Hebei province to Beijing for the Olympics this summer.
"Unfortunately, most people don't understand," Fei said. "They don't save water in their everyday lives. We tell them - 'water is precious.'"
Fei credits the government for tackling Beijing's water crisis before the 2008 Games. And she's optimistic.
"Our rivers are less polluted than they were in 2003," Fei said. "On the other hand, this will take some time."
Salaverry sees 'Green Olympics' as a stand-alone phenomenon.
"We've got two movements here - an Olympic environmental movement and a long-term environmental movement," she said. "Right now Beijing is trying to 'get it done' - it's game-time for the government, literally.
"There's been a ton of negative reporting on China's environment, but people are doing amazing things outside of Beijing. Pacific Environment supports the activists pursuing long-term change. They'll be here long after the Olympic athletes go home."
Zhao thinks the Chinese government is doing what it can to host a 'green' Games and keep the country clean.
"China's leaders realize that ruining the environment will halt economic development," he said. "Of course 'Green Olympics' is about face, pride, politics. Underneath, however, the motivations are real."
"Pollution is a global problem," Fei suggested. "Here in Beijing, we're trying to solve it. So...welcome to China!"
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