07/30/2008 09:26 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

China's Environmental Progress May Not Win Olympic Medals, But Why Not at Least Recognition?

Soon after our July 5th arrival, BOCOG invites its 300 media volunteers on a three-day sightseeing tour. The first day we visit a wastewater treatment plant and a farming village. It is not the sightseeing we had in mind, but I am excited to be along for the junket and to see the progress China's made on its environmental agenda.

We arrive at the Qinghe Water Reclamation Plant in Beijing's Haidian District. It is a massive site, with the capacity to recycle 80,000 cubic meters of wastewater a day. 75 percent of the water reclaimed here will replenish the lake at the Olympic Green. The other 25 percent will feed car washing and irrigation in Beijing's northern districts. We are ushered past high-tech membrane tanks and filtrations systems. The plant is polished and clean, the epitome of an advanced society's technological achievement. It is also the largest of its kind in China and a model for future projects nationwide.

Amidst all the criticism of China's environmental record in the Western media today, it is not surprising BOCOG took us here. The Qinghe Water Reclamation Plant is a major achievement by any standard, yet when I google it, eight of the first 10 hits are Chinese news sources like Xinhua, the China Daily and CCTV. Similarly, a keyword search conducted at major American news sites fails to find any mention of this commanding plant.

Atlantic Monthly reporter James Fallows argues in his article "Greening China" that, "China's environmental situation is disastrous. And it is improving. Everyone knows about the first part. The second part is important too."

The first part is apparent as soon as one disembarks from a plane, and it is the image most first-time visitors will likely take away. The haze blanketing the city in early July assaulted even my own lungs, desensitized after four years in China. I counted two blue-sky days amongst seven.

And while I witnessed four clear sky days immediately following the implementation of the even/odd license plate policy on July 20, on the fifth through ninth days, the sky had regressed to a hazy gray.

Yet despite what the naked eye perceives outside, the government has spent close to $17 billion on environmental development for the Olympics, and private environmental entrepreneurs are quietly and without much acknowledgment reaping in billions of dollars.

For example, a July 16 article in by Saqib Rahim references Kingbo, a medium-sized Chinese bio-tech company that produces organic fertilizer, and Suntech, a worldwide producer of solar photovoltaic cells founded by Shi Zhengrong, who is now one of China's wealthiest men.

"Outside recognition of where and why China has made progress increases the prospects that it will make further advances," writes Fallows. "It is simply fair to the many people within China, including within the Chinese Communist Party, who are trying their best to make a difference--and who are having more success than most Westerners who rely on media accounts would suspect."

Recognition is also the precursor to investment. Rahim cites Ray Cheung of New Ventures, a firm that funds small and medium-sized businesses with environmental goals: "If you give them the right financing or capital, there's a potential these companies could transform the environmental sector as well as the business climate."

It is easy to look cynically at a press trip to a wastewater treatment plant in China, but it's counterproductive and potentially harmful to discount it. "When China feels under attack, this pride turns into a frustration and anger that the West is still trying to hold it back and humiliate it," writes BBC reporter James Reynolds in his blog.

This frustration and anger is apparent. On July 21, Hugh Ye wrote on Reynold's blog that, "the kind of mock attitude to the methods the city used to clean its air, has it ever occurred to you that it might be the best way the government could think of right now and they might have done a lot but just as you know, to clean a city or even a country's air is not that easy. I knew it's your responsibility to point out problems and I really appreciate that, but continuously giving out negative image won't construct the whole image of Beijing."

Hizento posts, "It is unfair for people to think that it is because of mismanagement by the Chinese government that pollution occurs in China. It is the result of economic success. If you want clean air in China maybe you advocate China return to the Maoist era."

On July 21, the front page of the Chinese Global Times dissected Western media coverage of its even-odd car policy, arguing that because the games have not started yet, Western media wants only to expose China's shortcomings instead. The reporter ended by advocating more mutual understanding. He likened hosting the Olympics to hosting a party, when a host must accommodate its guests conflicting tastes, opinions, wants and needs.

Media must hold governments accountable and push for constant improvement, but rhetoric needs to be balanced with encouragement and recognition where it is due so that allies in both the public and private sectors are not alienated.

As for the wastewater treatment plant, I for one left with a renewed sense of hope for a greener China.