Hot air fails to disperse cloud over Guangzhou

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 October, 2010, 12:00am

Wednesday was yet another grey and hazy morning for Guangzhou. After living in the city for 10 months, I didn't think this was anything extraordinary. But the Guangzhou city government chose the day to mark the fact that the 16th Asian Games was only 30 days away, and to launch a massive propaganda stunt to show nearly 200 local and overseas journalists how much Guangzhou had transformed itself to host the biggest international sports event in China since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Speaking at the press conference, Guangzhou Mayor Wan Qingliang pronounced the city ready to take on the grand event.

'Guangzhou's sky is bluer and the water is clearer. Some citizens said they could enjoy the sunshine during the day and moonlight during the night. Many could even count the stars in the night sky while taking a stroll,' he said.

I was shocked. I couldn't recall one time in the past 10 months when I saw stars shining in the sky in downtown Guangzhou. As a huge fan of stargazing, I would be thrilled to find such spots in a city choking from heavy air pollution.

'Many rivers have become important venues for leisure, entertainment and fitness for the public after our river-cleaning efforts. Now that the water quality of the rivers has been improved, there are more fish, shrimp and even turtles in our rivers,' Wan said.

That was another puzzling statement. I can only remember Guangzhou's rivers as clotted-up and black.

More miracles were unveiled during the press conference. In a city seven times the size of Hong Kong, with double its population at 15 million, it's amazing to see how air pollution could be cut drastically in five years simply by cracking down on coal-burning boilers, implementing clean-energy reforms and opening facilities to remove industrial dust.

According to Wan, the number of motor vehicles at the end of last year had doubled since 2004, while industrial output increased by 130 per cent during the period. Yet Wan said Guangzhou's air quality had nevertheless improved by just over 12 per cent and acid rainfall had been reduced by 21.5 per cent. Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter also decreased in the same period.

It looks as if Hong Kong has a lot of catching up to do.

In the lead-up to the 16th Asian Games, which will run from November 12 to 27, Guangzhou has invested more than 110 billion yuan (HK$128 billion) to build and expand stadiums, run the event and complete the city's facelift.

Despite the glory and glamour Guangzhou is getting, many residents have long complained about the city's notorious traffic jams, which have been made worse by the construction of new public transport projects for the Games.

Scaffolding for beautification projects to dress up apartment buildings along main streets has smashed flower pots, attracted thieves and disrupted daily life since the middle of last year.

The public is also questioning the one billion yuan the government has pumped into revamping public transport and 10 billion yuan for decorating - equal to a seventh of the city's fiscal revenue last year.

The public was also annoyed by a rise in the number of cases of illness related to air pollution, with doctors saying construction dust was to blame. The number of patients with respiratory diseases had increased by 30 per cent in March compared with last spring, according to media reports.

The Southern Metropolis News reported in May that all construction sites would be ordered to shut down from September 30 to December 22 to contain noise and dust. The 84-day stoppage at more than 2,000 sites is putting some 400,000 migrant workers out of work.

Many foreigners have also complained it is harder to get visas ahead of the Games, and taxi drivers have talked about their fear of losing income with public transport being offered free.

Residents living near Haixinsha, which will be hosting the Games' opening and closing ceremonies, also fear what measures might be taken to ensure safety.

There's no doubt that the Games are transforming Guangzhou's appearance and improving air and water quality in a remarkable manner - whether or not the figures authorities are spouting match reality.