| XUANHUA, China
XUANHUA, China Aug 15 A grimy town in a pretty
plain, Xuanhua boasts a steel mill, several concrete plants,
and one of the biggest power plants serving Beijing, all of
which contribute to a pall of yellowish smog over the town.
Yet Xuanhua is a key district for environmental monitoring,
in line with Beijing's orders to improve air quality during the
Olympic Games. Visibly polluted, its incremental steps could
nonetheless mean progress for China in the long term.
Air quality in Beijing has improved since factory and car
restrictions came into effect in July, despite muggy, overcast
weather that cheated China of the blue skies it sought.
"We have done a lot of work on cutting down emissions and
saving energy. Hebei's effort in cutting down emissions and
saving energy has contributed a lot to improving Beijing's air
quality," said an official with the Xuanhua propaganda
department, who declined to give details or his name.
Xuanhua boasts a gleaming government building and a new
five-star hotel and its steel mill is building new housing for
workers. It guards the approaches to Beijing from Hebei
province, and smoke from its plants can easily drift to the
The steel mill itself exudes a sharp sulphur smell, and the
town is shrouded in dust and greasy smoke.
Nonetheless, the small measures taken by towns like Xuanhua
could add up to an improvement in China's air quality over
time, as the worst offenders are weeded out and the slightly
better performers invest in better equipment.
Xuanhua has shut at least one concrete plant during the
Olympics, permanently closed the worst facilities at its steel
plant, and allowed a dingy ceramics factory to go bankrupt.
"There's a huge amount happening on the environmental front
related to China's sense of what it means to be a developed
nation, and part of being developed is to have a pleasant and
healthy environment," said Deborah Seligsohn, of World
Resources Institute. She pointed to better pollution mapping
and stricter monitoring of emissions that will last long after
"That intertwines with the Olympics because part of the
point of the Olympics is to show 'we've made it'."
It remains an open question how much of the better air --
and accompanying economic slowdown, thanks to shut factories
and severe transport disruptions -- will last after the
Olympics end and the tourists go home.
"On the surface, the shutdowns were for the Olympics.
Governments told polluting steel mills that if they shut
voluntarily now, they would be allowed to reopen later," said
analyst Henry Liu, of Macquarie Research.
"But under this superficial reason, there is a deeper
economic root cause. The biggest problem is transportation,
because everything has slowed down, but also costs of
production are going up, margins are disappearing and cash is
Mindful of the local economy, many provinces and towns
tried to minimize closures if firms could show they met minimal
standards. At the same time, unexpected transport and power
limitations have forced plants further away to shut
Data from the National Bureau of Statistics clearly showed
an Olympics-related dent in steel, coal and iron ore output,
but much of that can be attributed to strict controls on mining
explosives and poor margins for small and inefficient plants.
"The Olympics has not been a very normal period, so data
from July are not representative of what economic performance
will be in the fourth quarter," said Judy Zhu, analyst at
Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai.
Still, greater awareness of pollution and the role of cars
and factories, mean there will be longer-term benefits even
after many of the factories reopen and the smog returns,
"People are now aware of the need for a pollution strategy
and that's a positive development."
(Additional reporting by Rujun Shen; Editing by Nick