I arrived in Beijing in late October, in time for the last days of the Communist Party’s 17th National Congress. That’s the top political conference that takes place once every five years, and the city was swarming with national and international visitors and press.

That day there were blue skies in Beijing. No kidding. The streets were swept clean, the sidewalk vendors gone, the DVD hawkers on holiday. There were many more police on the street, fewer cars. The sunset looked oily, a slick translucent glow to the clouds — but the last time I visited Beijing in April, I hadn’t even seen the sun through the smog.

Beijing during the conference
Beijing during the Congress. Photo: Christina Larson

I spoke with a representative from the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau the following Monday who neither confirmed nor denied — typical here — what everyone else told me: In time for the big event, the city had ordered official cars off the road and shuttered surrounding factories. And voila, brighter skies. (As a test, I even went for a run.)

Two days later, the conference was over. The skies were grey, the sun obscured. There were once again cigarette butts and orange peels on the sidewalk; the clack-clack of sidewalk cobblers, and the men waving “Bourne Identity 3” DVDs. I coughed as I walked down the street; the air left a strange aftertaste.

Beijing back to normal
Beijing returns to normal. Beijing two days after the Congress. Photo: Christina Larson

The previous week of unusually blue skies showed the Chinese government’s ability to clean up superficially, for a short period of time, in a discreet place, when it knows the whole world is watching. And it was impressive, eerily so. I felt a bit like I’d been on an immaculate factory tour, after the owner has been given plenty of advance notice.

I had my doubts before, but I’m becoming more optimistic that Beijing will be able to put on a good show for the Olympics. Challenges remain, including the city’s dreary sewer system, but air quality has long been seen as the biggest hurdle.

Of course, sprucing up Beijing for a month is a wholly different task from fixing China’s environmental problems long term, let alone fixing the problems in the political system that exacerbate rising levels of pollution and dwindling water supplies. (I’ll write more soon on this topic.) It’s not even equivalent to fixing the city’s problems short term, once the factories resume and official vehicles come back from holiday.

The international media will take back the wrong message if reporters attempt to draw far-ranging conclusions about China’s progress on environmental cleanup solely from the capital’s high-profile Olympic performance.

Still, I am taken by how stunning Beijing can be when the wind blows the right way, when smog isn’t obscuring its skyscrapers and white pagodas.