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    Greater China
     Jan 18, 2013


Winds of change in China's smog
By Brendan O'Reilly

Air pollution in Beijing has reached truly apocalyptic proportions. Last week saw the highest smog measurements for north Chinese skies since the implementation of modern monitoring methods. Vulnerable residents of the Chinese capital were advised to stay indoors, as facemasks and air filtration systems were sold in record numbers. On Monday, kindergartens and primary schools in Beijing suspended outdoor physical education classes to protect vulnerable young bodies from the noxious haze.

The toxic air that stagnates around Beijing could be blown away by a serious rearranging of national priorities. There are signs that China's new leadership is taking the issue seriously. Beyond incremental policies to ease the current situation, the most

 
important indication of change is the fact that China's state-run media has extensively covered the ongoing "Airpocalypse".

On January 12, readings in Beijing for PM 2.5 particles (the most dangerous particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less) reached 993 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization considers readings above 100 to be dangerous for sensitive groups, such as infants, the elderly, and asthmatics. The index for measuring PM 2.5 particles tops off at 500. In recent days the level of pollution in Beijing was literally off the charts.

Geography and weather play a role in exacerbating Beijing's acute pollution situation. The area around Beijing often suffers from stagnant air. Furthermore, the particularly cold weather has seen an increase in the use of coal for household heating. However, the primary cause of the "Airpocalypse" is China's singular focus on economic development. In the last several decades China has made historically unprecedented strides in alleviating poverty and increasing the material standard of living for the Chinese people.

Polluting factories of heavy industries are found throughout the Chinese landscape, and especially concentrated in the areas around Beijing. Furthermore, most of the electricity generated in China comes from coal.

China's newfound love for the automobile also plays a huge role in the ongoing crisis. As Chinese incomes have grown rapidly, personal automobiles are now seen as an essential status symbol for the emerging middle class. In 2011 the number of private vehicles on China's roads reached more than 100 million - up 11% from the previous year. [1] According to the Chinese Machinery Industry Federation, that number will double by 2020. This is a robust sign of China's growing affluence - and a logistical and environmental nightmare for its crowded cities.

Beyond rapid economic growth and government policies myopically focused on sustaining such growth, there are cultural issues at play. It is understandable that the Chinese people - who suffered from the world's deadliest famine merely half a century ago - are focused on increasing material prosperity. However, the rampant materialism that has come to dominate Chinese society is having serious environmental impacts. A contestant on a Chinese dating show sparked widespread controversy (and reflected common values) with her famous assertion that she would rather "cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle."

Winds of change
There are signs that China's leaders are beginning to take the issue of pollution seriously. On the local level, steps were taken to ameliorate the drastic situation in and around Beijing. Fifty-eight particularly polluting factories were forced to idle their operations, as several dozen construction sites suspended work and the Beijing municipal government ordered a third of its vehicles off the road.

Such incremental measures are to be expected in such a dire situation, but the real indication of change has come from China's state media. Instead of minimizing or censoring the issue of pollution, official media outlets have addressed the problem in emotional terms. A prominent image on Xinhua's Beijing news website shows an infant wearing a respirator, and reports record numbers of children admitted to hospitals for pollution-related ailments. [2] A piece in China Daily entitled "Pollution may make the economy splutter" pointed out the severe threat pollution poses not only to public health, but also to the all-important Chinese goal of sustained economic growth. After all, few tourists will be keen on visiting a city with unsightly and unsafe levels of pollution.

Even the Communist Party-run Global Times, renounced for its nationalistic stance, addressed China's environmental situation:
On this issue, the government cannot afford to make decisions for the society. Previously, governments used to deal with the pollution information in a low-key way and made the choice between development and environmental protection for public. However, when public opinion didn't go for this way of thinking, it led to some conflicts. In future, the government should publish truthful environmental data to the public. Let society participate in the process of solving the problem. [3]
Such media coverage and criticism would not be possible without sanction from China's top leadership. Obviously, there is a growing awareness on the part of China's leaders of the need to address China's deep and growing environmental problems.

Concerns over environmental degradation are increasingly popular in the People's Republic of China. According to Yang Chaofei, vice-chairman of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, the number of major environmental protests increased 120% between 2010 and 2011. [4] Last year saw several mass protests devolve into riots. Popular movements involving thousands of local residents have successfully shut down plans for major industrial plants in Qidong on China's coast and Shifang in China's interior. Environmental concerns are becoming a serious threat to China's current economic and political structure.

What these movements represent is a significant realignment in popular priorities. When China was largely impoverished, the people focused singularly on improving their material conditions - often at the expense of the environment. Members of China's growing middle class can now afford to worry about issues beyond the immediacy of putting food on the table. Somewhat paradoxically, China's nascent environmental movement is a reflection of China's increasing prosperity.

The widespread awareness and official media coverage of Beijing's pollution woes signal a potential for a massive change in priorities on the individual and governmental levels. A new balance must be struck between growing China's economy and ensuring that children can safely breathe the air in China's booming cities. The pressing issues of China's environmental situation cannot be postponed for much longer. The threats posed by pollution to China's health, economy, and political stability are very real. Incoming President Xi Jinping must breathe the same air as the lowliest migrant worker.

Notes:
1. Automobile ownership to exceed 100m by year's end: CMIF, China Daily, July 23 2011.
2. Beijing: Smog increases atomization treatment for Children, Xinhua, January 16, 2013 (Chinese).
3. Society needs fair call to clear heavy smog, Global Times, January 14, 2013.
4. Environmental protests in China on dramatic rise, expert says, South China Morning Post, October 29, 2012.

Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

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