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China’s Bad Air Day

By Christopher Shay

When the smog in Beijing gets bad or “crazy bad,” as the U.S. embassy once described the air in a tweet, one can scarcely see across the street. The city’s new skyscrapers disappear into the thick haze. During the day, you can usually make out the sun through the brothy skies, but even at midday, the sun is just a small white saucer, its rays obscured by dense and poisonous clouds. After a day walking through the city, a thin layer of grime covers the skin. Clothes smell like an airport smoking lounge. And that’s a normal bad air day.

On Saturday, the American embassy recorded a peak of 886 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic meter in Beijing. These are the tiny, killer particles of pollution. For the same scale, the World Health Organization says under 25 micrograms per cubic meter is safe. But it’s not just Beijing. On Monday, in Zhejiang province south of Shanghai, 800 miles away, a factory was engulfed in flame, but the air pollution was so bad, for three hours no one noticed the smoke billowing out of the factory. This is less of a surprise considering that the air pollution in Beijing was reported by ABC News as being more concentrated than levels inside forest fires in the United States.

What’s most shocking is that Beijing or a town in Zhejiang province couldn't even crack China’s top 10 cities with the worst air pollution, much less take the foremost spot. According to the state-run China Central Television, that dubious honor went to Shijiazhuang in Hebei province in northeastern China, with eight consecutive days of severe pollution.

Clearly, pollution is one of China’s biggest hurdles if it is to continue the greatest economic expansion in history. Beijing’s reaction to its recent bad air days gives reasons to hope that the government is taking the problem seriously. But the real test lies ahead. To overcome its environmental issues, the new Chinese leadership will have to take on its state-owned companies.

Through the smog, some positives can be seen. First, the government admitted publicly that it had a problem. This is not to be taken lightly. In the past, government officials have called polluted days merely “foggy” and touted the improving air quality of the capital. For 14 consecutive years, the state media still claims, Beijing’s air quality has improved. But this time the Chinese media was allowed to report surging patient admissions for respiratory problems. In a commentary, Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper that is accustomed to vociferously defending the government, wrote, “On this issue, the government cannot afford to make decisions for the society. … In the future, the government should publish truthful environmental data to the public.”

Coming from the Global Times, this is an admission of government failure and a surpising plea for greater transparency. A year ago, the newspaper called wearing a facemask to protect one’s lungs from pollution “unnecessary scaremongering.” This is progress. The government is no longer publicly downplaying or ignoring the issue.

Second, the government has taken concrete measures, if still baby steps, to alleviate the problem, such as expanding a pilot program that subsidizes emissions-reducing plants. They’ve also temporarily taken over 100 factories offline, removed most government vehicles from the roads, and ordered construction sites to sit idle.

The real challenge lies with state-owned energy companies like Sinopec, which dominate the energy industry and have undue influence over the state’s environmental decisions. The committee for determining fuel-standards, for instance, is chaired by a Sinopec official. If Xi Jinping, China’s presumptive president, is serious about limiting the pollution generated by construction, power production, and factories, he will have to take on powerful, entrenched interests in his own government and risk a slowdown in economic growth. It’s a daunting task to reform—even break up—some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies controlled by members of one’s own party, but it’s absolutely necessary, not just to improve economic efficiencies but also to ensure these companies can’t dictate environmental policy.

Beijing would do well to remember that the first protests in Taiwan that eventually led to the toppling of its one-party system were over the environment. Pollution is seemingly apolitical, since it harms everyone. This makes protecting the environment a safer rallying cry, yet at the same time more difficult for the government to quash without a risking a backlash. Last year in Sichuan province, plans for a $1.64 billion copper refinery plant were scrapped after a series of violent demonstrations. The success of this and other environmental protests mean there will likely be even more in 2013.

The Chinese government has taken the first step—admitting it has a problem. Now comes the hard part. With rising environmental awareness throughout China, the public will be scrutinizing and discussing the government’s decisions online, and they are increasingly likely to take to the streets in protest. If, in the coming months, new regulations are implemented to check the rampant pollution of state-controlled companies, China’s reformers will have proved that they can stand up to powerful interests in their own government—and the world will breathe a little easier.

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Christopher Shay is the managing editor of World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Brian Jeffrey Beggerly.]

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