If you are visiting Beijing, the first thing you notice is the dust. It gathers on the windowsills and forms a dirty film on your keyboards and desktops. At sunrise, armies of street sweepers descend on Beijing's expansive avenues to brush at fresh deposits of the sandy particles. All in vain.
For centuries, Beijing residents have tolerated this unsolicited gift from the Gobi desert. But their patience broke last year when dust, mixed with particulates from factories and vehicles, transformed the skies of Beijing into low-lying clouds of soot. 'Many days, it was so bad that I could barely see the building next door,' recalls Werner Hoenig, vice president of DaimlerChrysler, from his office on the 26th floor of the Landmark Towers in downtown Beijing.
Whenever there is a crisis in China, officials respond with an emotionally charged campaign to stamp out the causes. In this case, diesel-powered city buses were considered the main culprits. Overloaded with passengers, the capital's aging diesel-engine buses spewed smoke with every stop and start. If the city could not eliminate the dust, officials reasoned, at least it could do something about diesels.
Last November, the Beijing government announced a ban on all new diesel vehicles, effective January 1, 2000. Shortly after, a national air-quality commission was formed to investigate alternatives to diesels for 12 key Chinese cities. Chongqing, a city of 3 million in China's southwest, quickly ordered fleets of new buses powered by compressed natural gas. Shanghai endorsed liquefied petroleum gas for taxis and bus fleets. No longer welcome in Beijing: popular diesel-powered passenger vans from IVECO and Ford.
China's diesel engine manufacturers and their foreign partners found themselves on the defensive. And the stakes were high. Diesel engine factories across China produced 475,000 diesels for trucks and buses in 1999, up from just 50,000 in 1990. The diesel industry, which employs tens of thousands of workers, is the world's fourth largest after Western Europe, Japan and the United States.
Domestic diesel makers acknowledged Beijing's clean-air campaign was needed. But were not diesels, they wondered aloud, an easy target for politicians? Were officials familiar with the performance of modern diesels? China's hasty decision-making echoed that of other Asian nations that were unprepared for a debate over clean air. In the early 1990s, for example, Thailand mandated catalytic converters before the country even established standards.
'China's decision to improve air quality was a really positive step,' says Peter Hatzell, managing director of Cummins Engine, Asia Pacific. 'But the solution should have been to mandate an emission standard, not ban a technology.' To illustrate this point, a group of American, European and Japanese diesel engine makers launched the Green Diesel Initiative in March. The group is gathering technical data to help Chinese regulators make decisions.
Today, Chinese officials are being more cautious. While Beijing still holds tight to its ban on new diesels, other cities have backed away from such a tough approach. 'We should not simply put a ban on diesels. We need to take a more scientific way to study the problem and solve it,' says Zhang Zhiwen, deputy director of Clean Fuel Cities Steering Committee of China's Ministry of Science and Technology. Zhang and his colleagues form their views based on exchanges with the California Air Resources Board and special environmental policy committees in the European Union.
This evolution of attitude among top officials does not mean the man in the street is suddenly enamored with diesels. Most Chinese still frown at the mention of diesels. But unlike the West, China's residents have not been allowed to form an independent environmental movement. Instead, the news media - owned by the government - play the role of consumer advocate. And because officials are less inclined to attack diesels, the media have begun to portray them as `practical solutions' for China. Meanwhile, China's Environmental Protection Agency is pressuring diesel makers to meet Euro I standards by January 2001.
With the government taking steps to clean the air, the Chinese like to say the future is bright. But in China's decentralized economy, cities think and act independently. Even when standards are uniform, enforcement is weak.
'There are pretty big loopholes for manufacturers not to comply,' explains the director of one Chinese diesel engine company. 'A company can send a prototype for testing, get approval and then produce an older engine instead.'
In China, closing loopholes is as difficult as stopping the Gobi desert's sand. The significant point is Beijing is taking aggressive steps to set better standards. Moreover, regulators appear willing to seek a compromise. 'No one is ready to say that diesels are the answer,' said one regulator. 'But more people notice that modern diesels are not all bad.'