Beijing Olympics the Most Polluted Games?

By Si Wang Created: July 1, 2009 Last Updated: July 4, 2009
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The National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, is shrouded in smog on the opening day of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 8, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

The National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, is shrouded in smog on the opening day of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 8, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

A scientific study of air pollution during the Beijing Summer Olympics has raised a storm of rebuttal in China’s state-run press, with a Chinese author of the study being pressed into service by the Chinese regime to criticize his own work.

Beijing’s air pollution during the Olympic games nearly doubled that of the 2004 Athens summer Olympic games, tripled that of the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics, and was 3.5 times that of 2000 Sydney summer Olympics, according to a study on air quality during the Beijing Olympics.

A Daily Telegraph report on June 22 quoted the study, conducted jointly by researchers from Beijing University and Oregon State University, and called the Beijing Olympics “the most polluted games ever.” The study’s conclusions are consistent with China’s record of having 16 of world’s 20 most polluted cities, according to a World Bank report.

The Beijing Olympics are widely viewed as having been used by the Chinese regime to increase its prestige, both in China and around the world.

Expert Opinion

The Communist Party’s newspaper, People’s Daily, quoted Beijing University expert Zhu Tong as saying the air quality during the Olympics was “good to excellent” and criticizing the Daily Telegraph report as “irresponsible.”

The China-U.S. joint study measured fine dust particles (called particulate matter, or PM) over eight weeks before, during, and after the games, at a station inside Beijing University close to the sites of the 2008 Olympic table tennis, marathon, and bicycle races. The study found that PM concentrations exceeded the WHO standard more than 81 percent of the time during the games.  

Beijing invested US$20 billion into a “Green Olympics,” and during the games ordered the reduction of vehicles in the city and the shutdown of factories in the surrounding provinces. These pollution control measures, however, were less effective than the weather in clearing the polluted air, the study shows.

Zhu was quoted as saying that Oregon State University did set up an observation station in Beijing University and “As far as I know, the observation should have no technical problems;” but he criticized as “unscientific” using the observation data from that station to draw conclusions about Beijing’s overall air quality. 

The People’s Daily article concluded that the expert Zhu from Beijing University questioned the Olympic air pollution claims by scientists from Oregon State University.

The article gives no hint that Zhu himself is actually one of the five co-authors of the original research that was published earlier this year in Environmental Science and Technology and cited by the Daily Telegraph. Nor does the People’s Daily make clear that the first author of the report is from Beijing University, as are two of the other four authors of the report.

Staci Simonich, a researcher from Oregon State University and the contacting author of the published research, confirmed that Zhu is a co-researcher of the study. Zhu could not be reached for comment.

“Zhu is an excellent scientist,” said Staci Simonich. In response to the criticism by People’s Daily on extending the observation data to the Beijing Olympics, Simonich said, “We did monitor one site at Beijing University where there were some Olympic events.”

The state-run Xinhua News quoted Kevin Gosper, Chairperson of The IOC Press Commission, as saying “These data have no meaning” as the Beijing Olympics are almost a year past and were the most successful games on record. Back in 2008, Gosper dismissed pollution worries for the Beijing Olympics.

“The science and scientific data published in the journal have meaning,” responded Simonich, “I agree that findings have no meaning for the Olympic Committee now the Olympics are a year past.”

Propaganda Department

The Chinese media's response to the Olympic pollution reporting is likely to have come from the orders by the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department, according to Cheng Xiaonong, a China expert and editor of the journal Modern China Studies.

When it comes to international issues, Cheng explains, the Chinese media are not allowed to express their views independently. “The Propaganda Department gives the media very detailed instructions on a daily basis on what to report, and they usually utilize Chinese experts to speak for the government.”

Spinning off from the People’s Daily and Xinhua interviews with Zhu and Gosper, the Chinese media carried strong headlines: “Chinese Expert Refutes Foreign Media’s Reports on Beijing Olympics Being the Most Polluted” (Sohu News); “Beijing University Professor Criticizes the Statement about Beijing Olympics Being the Most Polluted Games” (Chinese Economic Net; “Foreign Media Defames Beijing Olympics and IOC Official Clears Rumors” (Titan 24 Sports Net).

The escalated rhetoric of the above headlines reflects a common phenomenon in the Chinese media, Cheng said. “The Propaganda Department designates which media shall carry the original reports, called ‘universal reports (tong gao),’ and requires other media to carry them with altered titles.” The original reports are usually carried by People’s Daily or Xinhua News.

To show their level of obedience to the Communist Party, other media tend to use stronger and even extreme headlines. “The Chinese media have become barking dogs for the [Communist] Party,” said Cheng. Staci Simonich declined to comment on the Chinese media reaction to her team’s research.



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