Thursday, January 11, 2007

Interesting interview today

Well my next column Is not going to be as funny as my last one was, that’s for sure. I’ve decided to write about air pollution in Beijing and dealing with that lovely topic. I figured I better know what I was talking about so I started making some calls and all of a sudden I’m like a real journalist or something.

A researcher at the Journal was helping me and the director of Beijing Department of Environmental Protection (approx, name only) wanted to talk in person. She asked if I wanted to join her and I figured I should. So we headed over today. We were supposed too meet him at 2:30. The office is on the west side of the city, very far from home.

I went down to the WSJ office and Sue and I headed over together, with Mr. Dou driving us. He didn’t know where it was, had a little mixup, which almost never happens with him. He took us to t a national government environmental protection building. There were a lot of guards in front. I was kind of excited because I could actually read a couple of the characters on the sign, although I couldn’t get past “Chinese Home of…”

She told me it was the headquarters for, I believe, nuclear safety. Dou asked the guard where the city dept of environmental protection was. They pointed west. We drove on. After a bunch more driving around and asking people, we found the place. We walked in at around 2:35. Inside the lobby there was large flat screen TV cycling through different charts and informational pages. Sue said it was showing the pollution index for today, the graphs representing different parts of Beijing.

Today was very cold and very clear, crisp and blue. You could see the mountains in the distance though they were a little hazy. The TV said the reading was 80-100. The World Health Organization sets a goal of 20 for healthy breathing. We went upstairs, found the office of the assistant director and the spokesman. They w ere nice guys, about 45-50. They seemed gentle, serious, bureaucratic but not drone like. They were wearing light jackets and the whole building was slightly chilly and there not a lot of lights on.. the hallways were dim. Perhaps a way of saving electricity. It felt like.. a city government building.

They said the director was in a meeting, we would have to wait a bit. We sat on a couch. They gave us some bottled water to drink, labeled “Beijing Mineral” water. I laughed but drank it. They were very nice. We interviewed the spokesman guy and after a while I had enough info. It was almost 4:00 and I was ready to leave. Then the Director arrived and we were escorted to his office up stairs, along with their translator. They wanted their own person.

She was young and her English was halting. After we left she said that the other woman, whom they wanted to translate for me, actually didn’t miss much, though I had definitely assumed otherwise and it didn’t really matter because I was only going to use about .025 percent of the info anyhow. The director was a friendly guy who didn’t seem too pompous but who really liked to hear himself speak and it didn’t matter too much what I asked. He had his talking points and he talked.. and talked.. and talked…

While he was going on and on, I received a text message and two phone calls from an American doctor specializing in Beijing pollution whom is more important for this. But I was busty nodding my head and trying not to nod off. We (he) spoke for well over an hour. By the end of it I was almost convinced that there isn’t that big of an air pollution problem here. After all, they had surpassed their goal of 245 “blue sky” days for last year. And there were charts and evidence of huge improvements since 1998 and thousands of coal-fired boilers had been converted to clean-burning natural gas. A nd yeah, there are 1,000 new cars a day on the streets of Beijing but much higher standards means each one pollutes only as much as 20 cars did a few years ago.

Truth is, Beijing was recently named the city with the worst air pollution in the world, based on satellite imagery. His bottom line was two fold – 1. We’ve come a really long way. 2. We have a really long way to know.

I didn’t walk out until 5 pm. I described the whole thing to Becky and she said, “well, you haven’t had too many interviews like that since you came to China.” True enough. It was educational, at least a little bit in the way I intended it to be.