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The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog

By Wu Qiang, published: March 15, 2014

Look beyond Chai Jing’s film.

 

In a time when opinion leaders, known as the “big verified accounts” or Big Vs,  in China have been razed or driven away, who would have thought that one of them would re-activate the topic of smog with an eye-opening combination of a TED-like presentation and documentary interviews. Everything about Chai Jing’s film Under the Dome, from millions of views within two days, to the heated national debate, from the government’s initial encouragement to its subsequent censorship, indicates that it is a carefully-planned New Media event, and its purpose is to cause a small tsunami in the traditional arena of politics in order to establish a new framework for the politics of dealing with pollution.

For now, let’s leave alone the dramatic reverse of the Party’s propaganda department. More likely than not, its shutting down the film is due to the party’s fear of losing control over the boisterous online chattering. Let’s also refrain from speculating on Chai Jing’s motivation. She explains it away as her “private grievance against smog,” which is a sentimental, apolitical pretense that Big Vs like to sport these days when speaking to the public, but few would take it at face value. On the other hand, the film will effectively mobilize the public if everyone becomes aware of his or her self-interest in all of this. The question then is: who is directing this mobilization? My focus is not on Chai Jing’s role, whether she’s addressing a personal concern or acting as someone’s white gloves. Instead, let’s read into the film and identify the forces that drive China’s politics of smog.

The first force comes from the U. S. When Xi Jinping talked about blue sky during the APEC meeting last November, we should have known that the short-lived APEC Blue would turn out to mean a lot. President Obama and President Xi Jinping reached a deal in which China promised to reduce carbon emission by 20% by 2030. The deal was almost the sole instance of progress the Obama administration has made in the US-China relation at a time when the relationship is becoming more difficult. During the Clinton administration, the Most Favored Nation Trade Status was the issue that bound the relationship. During the Bush administration, the bond was war on terrorism. Now that these bonds have gone, the emission promise is becoming the new bond that keeps the two countries in a cooperative relationship in which they clash often but not break up. The deal is also one of the few gestures China makes to the United States and to the world that it is a responsible power and that it recognizes the international rules. Furthermore, smog is not just an internal affair of China. Carbon emission is a menace to the atmosphere and has long been a global issue, and the Chinese government can ill afford not to address the international concerns.

In fact, it was the U. S. embassy that had popularized the concept of PM2.5 in China. As another conservative country in the UN Climate Change Conference, the U. S. needs to work with China, an even more conservative country in the Conference. Smog therefore is a shared strategic topic for both countries, and it serves the political agenda of China’s new leaders. But of course they do not want to draw attention to the American factor of it. Instead, it is portrayed as President Xi’s concern for blue sky and as a part of his China Dream narrative. I’m sure Chai Jing’s team had a clear grasp of this opportunity, or, they might even have received hints as well as funding for the film. If so, the film is not a conspiracy as many suggested; rather, it is an explicit plan.

Handan, Hebei. Credit: Sohu http://business.sohu.com/s2015/jrzj357/index.shtml

Handan, Hebei. Credit: Sohu http://business.sohu.com/s2015/jrzj357/index.shtml

The second force is the collapse of the coal and oil alliance in China. In the early 20th century, Germany had an important conservative force known as the alliance of steel and rye. “Steel” refers to the steel monopoly led by the Krupp family, “rye” refers to the Prussian Junker landowners, and the alliance led to militarism and the rise of the Nazi party. Over the last decade or so, there existed in China a similar political alliance – the alliance of coal and petroleum, that has supplied most of China’s fuel. “Coal,” represented by the so-called “West-hill” faction (西山派), consisted of powerful officials and big coal mine owners in Shanxi, the coal-rich province. “Oil” is represented by executives of China National Petroleum Corporation, the biggest of the three large state-owned petroleum companies, and the party’s “politics and law” system controlled by Zhou Yongkang, the party’s former chairman of Politics and Law Committee, and his network of oil industry officials.

The two interest groups were formed during Jiang Zemin’s rein, a time marked by those in power making money quietly. They completed their slicing of the pie during the decade of “collective leadership” of the Politburo, and formed a political alliance to compete for the supreme leadership in China. But in 2014, they were politically struck down one after another. Of course the price drop in coal and oil diminished the profit, on which these two interest groups depended, lending a helping hand to the new leaders, so did the international pressure on China to deal with air pollution, the internal struggle, and the need to grow clean energy industries. Only now are Big Vs like Chai Jing able to raise direct questions about these groups, in what feels like a trial on Ling Jihua and Zhou Yongkang without their presence. Compared to the struggle to deal with “Tieben” (铁本) during Wen Jiabao’ time in 2004, the new leaders have been impressive. What remains, such as the zombie steel industry in Hebei, if the government could shut it down for a month during the APEC, it’s only a matter of time before it will be bankrupt. Everything will have to be subjected to the need to have blue sky in the so-called Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei economic region.

This is the small “domestic climate” of the smog era, while new energy in the developed countries, the myth of shale oil, OPEC’s refusal to limit production, and the UN climate change conferences together constitute the big “international climate.” Taking into consideration the direct pressure on the Chinese fossil fuel industries from American climate change politics, the collapse of the coal-oil alliance, marked by the fall of Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang and their failed attempt to stage a coup, is quite like a 2014 version of Lin Biao’s escape and subsequent death before Nixon’s China visit in 1972.

The third force is the power expansion of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). Throughout, the documentary gives voices to environmental protection organs, to their complaints about problems with environmental assessments, product standards and law enforcement power, etc. Chai Jing is like a spokesperson for MEP, making use of the smog to lobby her audience. If we look back at the protest against the Nu (Salween) River dam, one will have to admire the MEP. Among all of the ministry-level agencies, the MEP knows best how to leverage NGOs and Big Vs against local powers and utilize China’s environmental crisis to expand the agency’s own power, including upgrading the agency from bureau level to ministry level.

What we can expect next is the further expansion of the MEP. It is not bad in itself. New power will rise as coal-oil alliance falls. We can expect the increased binding power of environmental impact assessments, and the MEP being given decisive power in setting product standards and emission standards. It is also possible that the MEP will be given law enforcement authority for the first time, for example, the authority of forced inspection, search, sequestration, fines, recall and closure. We shouldn’t be surprised if in the future the MEP establishes its own environmental police force and environmental procureratorate, similar to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the United States, that merges the existing forest police force and fisheries regulatory body to form a new environmental law enforcement power. After all, the power redistribution and institutional reconstruction these changes bring is in line with the increasing trend of power concentration since Xi Jinping took power. It can also be put under the banner of “comprehensively deepening reform,” providing Chinese leaders with concrete evidence to show to the world that China is taking measures to reduce emission.

The fourth force is the public. The phrase “breathing the same air, sharing the same destiny” is effective social mobilization and can unleash the potential of a large scale environmental movement. Back in 2013 when northern China was cloaked in smog for extended periods of time, people felt compelled to do something. They had never felt so viscerally and so acutely, as they did during those days as their cities were shrouded in smog, the incompetence of the government, the anti-societal nature of capital monopoly, and the detrimental impact of China’s growth model on nature. The public’s environmental awareness has never been as strong as it is today. When facing repression, people may choose to remain silent about the smog problem or simply emigrate, but their discontent can manifest in other ways and can accumulate to become a time bomb for the Party-state. As face masks people wear everyday render surveillance cameras meaningless, the security organs are said to be very uneasy, fearing that the situation can spin out of control and lead to a smog revolution.

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

The numbers vary, but it must have taken the censorship apparatus by surprise when at least 30 million people watched the documentary and shared their opinions in the first hours of its premiering. This was almost an inconceivable happening, given the constrained state of the internet in China following “cleanups” against Big Vs. I tend to believe that Chai Jing’s documentary is a product of Xi Jinping’s “blue sky policy” and his New Media tactics, and that the propaganda department’s censorship is a cool-off decision to prevent further agitation of public opinion. It is the people who gave the film momentum and whom the propaganda department fears the most. Therefore, people are the most powerful actors in the politics of smog. As the main constituents of Xi Jinping’s blueprint for a “moderately prosperous society,” they could be trained to adhere to traditional cultural norms and appeased by the promise of blue sky. But they have potentials; many opportunities exist when they can wake up, turning from passive viewers to the main player of the politics of smog, making their voices heard, and tearing open the illusion that they are living in a comfortable and prosperous society.

These four forces, the international pressure, the outgoing coal-oil alliance, the ambitious technocrats in the MEP and the state reform organs, and the hitherto dormant citizens, are the four main roles in China’s politics of smog. Big Vs like Chai Jing are merely the agents of one or two forces. They themselves are not important. What is important is the timing and the framework.

Therefore, there is no better timing than 2015. The coal-oil alliance has gone bankrupt and can be made the chief culprit of the smog. And Xi Jinping’s “four comprehensives” (comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively govern the country according to the law, and comprehensively apply strictness in governing the party) provides a good framework. The four forces appeared in Chai Jing’s documentary as the protagonist, the antagonist and the people it appeals to, each corresponding to an aspect of Xi’s governing framework, although the role of the U.S. and the international community is deliberately downplayed and citizens’ actions de-politicized. Regardless, we have to admire the film’s accurate presentation of China’s politics of smog.

 

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Wu Qiang (吴强)

Wu Qiang (吴强)

Wu Qiang (吴强) is a political science professor at Tsinghua University.

 

Related:

Under the China Dome – A Reality Check, by Yaxue Cao, March 9, 2015.

Smog as a Political Analogy, by Chang Ping, March 4, 2015.

Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement, by Wu Qiang, February 22, 2014.

 

 

(Translated by Yaqiu Wang and Yaxue Cao)

An abbreviated version of the Chinese original was posted here.

 

Smog as a Political Analogy

By Chang Ping, published: March 4, 2015

 

“Each and every part (of the petroleum industry) is basically a monopoly.”

“Under a monopoly there can be no innovation.”

“Outsiders can’t break into it at all.”

“It is the one and only child. The toys are all his. He plays with them anyway he wants, and he throws them around.”

On camera, one after another, Chinese policy-making officials and environmental administrators indicted the China National Petroleum Corporation, a SOE that has contributed a great deal to air pollution in China according to Chai Jing’s documentary Under the Dome. One quickly realizes that it is also a pretty accurate assessment of the Communist Party regime itself and China’s political landscape.

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die; it’s that I don’t want to live this way.” Chai Jing’s self-reflection has now become an internet meme, but it is not the intention of the former CCTV investigative reporter to make her film a political analogy. On the contrary, some of her critics believe it actually helps weaken the demand for government accountability. Those who have been persecuted for taking part in the environmental movement or those who made similar documentaries but were harshly banned raised their doubts about how Chai Jing is able to successfully make the documentary and disseminate it.

Many environmental professionals jointed the discussion, providing the public with expert analyses and recommendations. But such expertise, taken from research and experiences in the developed countries, has long been published, and it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government has not acquired them with its mighty purchasing power. It’s been at least 10 years since the Party, under environmental pressure, proclaimed its “scientific outlook for development,” and the public has bought into the preaching that “it will change given time.” But a decade on, the smog has gotten worse. The short answer is, China’s political smog is the greater cause of its environmental smog.

Chai Jing corrects some misinformation such as the body’s adaptability to bad air. But think about it, the propaganda juggernaut works overtime to convince people that China has a special cultural tradition, Chinese like to be dominated and long for a political strongman, and they will not adjust to a democratic political system. In short, China needs dictatorship.

In fact, it is not that people have adapted to dictatorship, but that dictatorship has been damaging people’s independent thinking. “I don’t think there is any information that suggests that exposing your child to air pollution is going to help them to adapt,” Professor Edward Lawrence Avol at the University of Southern California told Chai Jing. “If you expose them on day one, they lose some function. If you expose them on day two, they don’t lose the same amount, but that’s not because they have adapted, but because they have already lost that function.”

Smog was already very serious ten years ago, but it did not make people so uneasy as it does today. As Chai Jing points out, that’s because we didn’t call it smog; we called it fog, a lovely thing for Chinese whose literature is imbued with poetic descriptions of fogginess. But Chai Jing avoided telling her audience that the concept of PM2.5 was brought to the Chinese public by the U. S. Embassy. It monitored Beijing’s air quality and publicized the data every day, and that’s how the Chinese public learned the truth about the air. In Chai Jing’s film, China’s environmental officials are portrayed very positively, but back then, they protested repeatedly, accusing the American embassy of violating diplomatic protocols. Meanwhile, the state media fanned patriotism, saying our “air quality data cannot be dictated by others.” Thanks to the American embassy’s “violation,” we know we have smog, not fog.

“One Party Dictatorship Leads to Disasters Everywhere” was the title of an editorial of Xinhua Daily, the communist party’s mouthpiece, in 1946, and the one-party dictatorship referred to the Nationalist Party rule. Today, the communist party cannot deny the existence of poisonous milk powder, poisonous pork, poisonous rice, polluted air, soil and water. But despite these environmental disasters, they insist that China must “unwaveringly maintain the party’s leadership.” When defending the industry’s monopoly, Cao Xianghong, the director of China’s National Petroleum Standard Committee and former chief engineer of CNPC, said, “Petroleum is a security issue, and it could easily cause big problems.” Politically, many Chinese have accepted the same threat that democracy will lead to turmoil, and dictatorship brings safety.

Monopoly inevitably leads to corruption. The documentary told us that “among the 36 heavy industries in China, 22 are suffering from serious overcapacity.” But instead of being eliminated by the free market, the state is propping them up with large subsidies. In the film, Liu Shiyu, the deputy head of the PBC, China’s central bank, described them as zombie companies. “They consume a large amount of financial resources, they bring unpredictable risk to our real economy, but they are still expanding.” Alas, this is also a good portrait of the regime.

Chai Jing calls to dismantle the monopolies of CNPC and Sinopec, but as long as the political monopoly remains, fair competition is unlikely, and the environmental industry will become the new field for monopoly and exploitation by the power players.  That’s why many netizens seconded the assessment that “it will only get worse if the market is opened up.”

In tackling pollution, the most important lessons China can learn from the developed countries are the public’s right to know through a free press, civic participation through freedom of association, and environmental litigation through an independent judiciary. But Xi Jinping’s government has been strangling the media and the internet through harsher censorship, and they have made it clear that “governing the country according to the law” must be led by the Party. As for civic movements, including NGOs, we have been witnessing a steady elimination of some of the most inspirational organizations of civil society through the persecution of the New Citizens Movement, Transition Institute, Liren Library, Yirenping, and independent candidates for people’s representatives. Breaking up a monopoly in a certain industry will not drive away the smog. To bring back the blue skies over China, the political monopoly must be lifted too.

 

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长平_DWChang Ping (长平) is a veteran Chinese journalist and commentator of current affairs. He lives in Germany now. A more extended biography can be found here

 

Related:

Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement, by Wu Qiang, February 22, 2014.

 

(Translated by China Change)

The silver lining to China’s smog

When it comes to China’s environmental progress, it can be hard to find much of a silver lining. The front page of the newspaper in the office today showed Beijing choked with pollution, as over 200 flights had to be canceled. New data also came out that showed the increase in CO2 emissions in 2010 was the largest since the industrial revolution, and China’s lead as worst polluter continues to grow at an astonishing pace. Yet today, I’m feeling slightly optimistic about the future of the air quality as co-workers and friends more frequently discuss the urgency of this issue.

The other day I had the chance to help a person prepare a presentation about the energy saving measures taken in one of Nanjing’s largest public building projects. It will feature solar water heaters that can produce thousands of gallons of warm water for baths each day; rain water collection systems that would reduce the amount of water that would need to be treated by 60%; and an ice-cooled air conditioning system that would save the city millions of RMB each year just in operating costs.

It was when we were discussing the ice-cooled system that the man mentioned something that I hadn’t been aware of (we live on campus and don’t see the bills), Jiangsu province prices energy according to whether it is “peak” or “off-peak” usage. This means that the system will freeze water at night when prices are low, and then use that stored coolant during the day, when energy prices are high. Systems like this help reduce the overall energy demand, allowing Nanjing to power the city with fewer polluting power plants.

According to the director, the cost of the system is less than 5% higher than a traditional A/C system, but the operating cost is 50% lower than the traditional system. This price incentive is only present because of the dual pricing system.

The key bit to understand here is that cities have to build up capacity to meet peak power demands to avoid brownouts. To achieve this, additional power plants run in a kind of stand-by mode waiting for demand to increase. Unfortunately, these plants are not nearly as efficient as regular base load power plants (the ones that run all the time). So reducing peak power demand can greatly reduce CO2 emissions without asking people to make major sacrifices.

This dual pricing method helps offset the growing energy demands of China’s lower-middle class, because this group makes up a large part of the population but is still relatively poor, they are extremely price sensitive (as are many of China’s middle class). This means that a small price difference will lead them to use energy in a drastically different way. The director who was explaining the policy to me pointed out that he sets his watch every night just to let him know when off-peak prices have arrived so he can take a shower (which uses an electric water heater).

The director also told me that the motivation behind these green measures, was that power prices would be climbing higher as China struggles to curb emissions. If they didn’t implement these measures now, the costs later would be much higher.

I believe that the most effective way to get people to use electricity responsibly is to make the economic cost of electricity reflect the cost its production places on society. These costs are no where more visible than in China.

This struck me again last night as I was watching a nature film at a friend’s house. A Chinese friend couldn’t believe that the images of the night skies in the US were real. “In all my life, I’ve never seen stars like that,” he said shaking his head, fully aware of what a sad statement it was.

Western companies should be blamed for China’s pollution

When talking with Chinese friends and co-workers about the pollution levels in Nanjing (awful compared to developed countries, but decent for Chinese cities), they are quick to point out that foreign companies in China are the ones that should be blamed for the filthy air. While it is absolutely true that foreign companies are adding to China’s environmental woes, I’m not convinced they should shoulder all the blame.

Today, I’d like to start by discussing three points related to this statement, and I hope you’ll continue the discussion in the comment section below.

Production for the West

This factor is undeniable. Western consumers have benefited from the destruction of China’s environment by purchasing cheap goods. If all of our environmental standards were enforced globally (and corporations actually complied), then the price of goods would be higher.

The latest example of this can be seen in the fact that Apple’s production facilities in China have created many environmental problems while making goods far out of reach for most Chinese consumers.

The problem I have with this argument, is that the destruction of China’s environment for the sake of producing goods for the West has also benefited many Chinese by creating jobs (from migrant workers to factory owners). The pollution has been seen as a by-product of development, without questioning how it could have been avoided.

However with the slow down in the global economy, one would expect that declining demand overseas would correlate to China’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions. Instead we see China’s emissions have continued to grow during this time, as there have been massive pushes to increase domestic consumption. It turns out cheap Chinese products made in polluting factories aren’t any less attractive in Chinese Walmarts than they are in the West.

While consumers in ALL countries have a responsibility to choose environmentally responsible products, due to the explosive growth of Chinese manufacturing, it would be very difficult to buy only “green” products.

Chinese Companies

Another important point against this argument, is that China was polluted before foreign companies arrived in the late 70’s. Foreign companies work largely through or with Chinese factories, and Chinese companies are among the world’s least environmentally conscious. The idea that western corporations are doing something different than Chinese companies is ridiculous.

Let’s take a quick look at two companies operating in China that have been attacked in the Chinese press:

In Apple’s case, Foxconn is their major supplier and also their major polluter. Apple clearly should be making greater efforts to practice corporate responsibility, but Foxconn should not be absolved of wrongdoing simply because it is working with a foreign company. Yet in Chinese papers you will always see Apple taking the majority of the blame.

The same is true of the recent oil spill involving ConocoPhilips. Both Global Times and People’s Daily railed against their environmental destruction, and both failed to mention that a state owned company owned the majority share of the project.

While blaming foreign companies might be more politically palatable, it does little to address the underlying problem.

Lax Regulations

Let’s be honest, when it comes to corporations, do we really expect them to take any actions that don’t add to their bottom line?

Corporations have a responsibility to their share holders to maximize profits, and few legal responsibilities to communities beyond paying taxes. This might be a fairly negative view of corporations, but it is not surprising that companies will dump as much toxic waste into rivers, and spew as much carbon into the air as governments will allow (if it is profitable).

While cheap labor is often cited as a reason for companies moving to developing countries, lax environmental standards are another major factor.

For example, in Nanjing there is a large chemical factory owned by a German multi-national that is often blamed for the smog in the air. The question I always pose to my Chinese friends is, “Why didn’t they build this factory in Germany?” The reason being that environmental regulations in Germany would make this kind of processing plant incredibly expensive to run. The Nanjing gov’t invited the company here because it would increase local GDP.

This is the major underlying problem. The pursuit of local GDP development (in return for promotions) has essentially aligned the interests of local government leaders with those of corporations, instead of the people they supposedly represent. While the Central government has created CO2 emissions targets and other environmental incentives, local leaders still recognize the fact that the key to promotion is GDP.

Perhaps the most troubling example is Huaxi (read my series on the richest village in China), instead of being condemned for it’s reliance on dirty industries like fertilizer production and steel, it has been lifted up as a national model of excellence.

Even in cases where factories have been “shut down” for violating the already lax environmental regulations, they are frequently allowed to continue their operations until people end up in the hospital (numerous examples of lead poisoning from “closed” factories have surfaced in the last year).

If local governments encourage the creation of heavily polluting industries, than they too must shoulder some of the blame for the resulting mess.

Ultimately, even if every multinational pulled out of China tomorrow, there is little evidence that this would actually bring an end to China’s pollution problems. Certainly the West is benefiting from this environmental destruction, but to pretend that this disaster is not largely of China’s own making ignores the reality of the situation.

For unbelievable photos of China’s environmental devastation and the toll it takes on China’s people check out this post from ChinaHush.com

Growing People Power – Netizens are changing China for the better

When I first arrived in China in 2007, the attitude of many of my Chinese friends was that the system was broken, but there was absolutely nothing they could do to fix it. I clearly remember chatting with a professor in Longzhou. He said, “They talk a lot about a ‘harmonious society’ but what the hell does that mean? The price of everything is going up and things are getting worse. I don’t care about ‘harmony’ I care about actually having a good life.”

At that time I was surprised to hear people openly complain about their situation, and was bothered by their sense of hopelessness. Now though people are far more willing to vent their frustration, not only with foreigners (who are seen as a safe choice for venting), but also online.

Initially I was skeptical that anything would change as a result of messages on Weibo. Four years later, I am continually surprised at what can be accomplished by netizens.

This of course is not to say that China has been democratized, stories are still scrubbed from the forums, and many movements are deemed a threat to social harmony. However, I believe that we are seeing the next step being taken in public participation of government decisions.

The most recent example of this started back in the first week of October, when Beijing was draped in a smog that friends on Twitter described as “apocalyptic”.  When a foreign doctor commented on the health risks associated with such pollution, Global Times responded by saying it wasn’t that bad (read more in my post: An incredible lack of integrity). In short their argument was that the time was not yet right for Beijing to measure PM2.5, which are more harmful particles than what had been previously measured.

After a sustained campaign by citizens, roughly one month later, Beijing has acceded to higher air quality standards, and even The People’s Daily has taken a very different tune.

“The country now only reports air quality based on readings of PM10, particulate matter smaller than 10 microns, which is why monitoring results do not match people’s sense of pollution.

Zhang Lijun, vice-minister of environmental protection, said that Chinese cities are facing severe air pollution.”

In the last few months we have seen several effective environmental protests that have led to meaningful results, most of which started online. It is wonderful to see Chinese standing up to polluting factories, and that local governments are now being pushed to heed their demands is the result of an increased focus on the environment that started in the Central Government.

Once netizens get the taste for flesh and blood activism, we could see movements call for something more daring than the shuttering of dangerous polluters, perhaps something like freeing a blind lawyer and his family in Shandong province.

For more on China’s Environment I strongly recommend Jonathan Watts’ book, “When A Billion Chinese Jump,” you can read my review here

When the Air Stinks – The Cost of Pollution in China

On Friday morning I was taking a group of foreign guests to visit sites around Nanjing when a heavy smog blanketed the city in a yellow stench. It seemed as if every family in the city of over 7 million had lit a pile of tires ablaze. Within 20 minutes of being outside I started feeling asthma like symptoms, meaning that it actually hurt to breathe.

After the experience I was eager to check the official Air Quality Index (updated daily) to see just how severe the pollution had been. Unfortunately, these are not posted in a timely enough manner to be of any use in avoiding this kind of hazard.

So you can imagine my surprise in learning that “officially” the air quality on Friday was “good” according to the Chinese scale (it was 90 on the AQI scale while a neighboring city was over 300, on this scale anything over 35 is considered to have negative health effects). Not only was the air not good, but 90 is actually an average day for Nanjing, nothing at all like what we experienced here on Friday.

Which makes me question a recent study done by MIT that used gov’t numbers to conclude that air pollution cost China about $112 billion in 2005 (Full Report -or- summary). It is important to note that this report was complied only looking at PM10, which are the larger particles in the air, the PM2.5 measurements are not collected by the Chinese gov’t, and are the smaller particulates that cause the most damage to the respiratory tract. Given though that the air is much worse than what is being reported it is safe to say that this number should be much, much higher, and that is only counting air pollution.

Beyond the economic costs, and the physical damage being done to the Chinese people, I think it is important to note that China’s current environment is embarrassing. Even as an expat, I felt more than a little embarrassed of my adopted country, when our foreign guests pointed out that after his experience, he would never bring his family to China. This guest was a medical doctor from the UK, and wasn’t the type to make jokes. “My son has mild asthma,” he said, “This pollution would kill him.”

For more on this topic read Jonathon Watt’s report card for China’s Environment or My first post on the topic, “There Must Be Something in the Air

Update: Yesterday we again saw severe pollution, which was reported on the news as reaching an AQI index of 361, and yet it was not nearly as bad as Friday’s pollution. This level of pollution is considered to cause health problems in even the healthiest people, and all outdoor activities should be cancelled. Yet no warning was issued by the local health departments.