Is Beijing clean enough to host an Olympics? Last week cast some serious doubts. In one 24-hour period, the city was enveloped by a dense, dirty gray fog and the air-pollution index hit 414 on a scale that tops out at 500. Authorities consider that level "heavily polluted" and recommended that citizens "avoid outdoor activities." The fog was so thick that municipal officials closed one of the city's main highways and scores of flights into the capital were delayed.
The city's experience a few weeks ago during the China-Africa Summit may have foreshadowed the kind of drastic measures required to clean up Beijing's air during the Olympics. In preparation for the summit, which ended in early November and featured a whopping 42 heads of state, authorities ordered half a million official cars off the roads and said 400,000 other drivers had "volunteered" not to use their vehicles. The measures worked--for a short time. The air-pollution index fell to a normal level on the last day of the meeting. Within days, however, the smog shot back up.
With 1,000 new cars a day joining the nearly 2.8 million vehicles already clogging Beijing's streets, the Communist Party will certainly have to order similar drastic measures during the entire 17-day duration of the Games, if not sooner. That could leave Beijing's newly prosperous residents digging out their old rusty bicycles. At least they'll be riding in cleaner air for a few weeks.