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Unhealthy Weather Brings Healthy Discussion Across China

Last week, China’s unsustainable growth-at-all-costs economic model culminated in a hazardous environmental reality. The record-breaking level of pollution in Beijing, as well as in other northern, central and eastern Chinese cities, has brought the inadequate nature of China’s environmental policies to the forefront. In light of the scale of China’s environmental challenge, the recently appointed Chinese government should use this as a platform to demonstrate its legitimacy.

In the days prior to January 16th, pollution levels had mounted from 728 micrograms to over 900 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5, health-threatening particles small enough to enter a person’s lungs and bloodstream. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers 25 micrograms per cubic meter safe. The change of atmospheric conditions saw an influx of hospitalized patients with respiratory issues, as well as major traffic and flight delays due to limited visibility. Unfortunately, residents could do little besides wearing facial masks and limiting outdoor activities until the 16th – reportedly the day that cold winds would sweep the pollutants out.

The way that the Chinese government is going to deal with this problem will be very telling of the newly appointed cabinet and, by extension, of China’s future. So far, there has been an impressive level of dialogue about China’s environmental reality. Li Keqiang, the second leader of the country’s Communist hierarchy has stated that these persistent environmental issues will require a “long-term” clean up. Xi Jinping’s promise for economic sustainability is hopeful. However, Yang Fuqiang, a former government energy policy researcher and now senior advisor at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says otherwise. Yang Fuqiang asserts it should be treated as a national emergency, like London’s “killer smog” of 1952 which actually led to new environmental laws.

Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang

This dialogue suggests a willingness to publicly address the country’s issues, and has resulted in a greater level of information for Chinese citizens. Zhang Dawei, director of Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre, has addressed the smog, clearly citing vehicle emissions and industrial production as the primary causes. These causes can only be exacerbated by the use of coal for central heating in the coldest winter Beijing has seen in twenty years. At the grassroots level, locally-published pollution readings have certainly never yielded such high numbers. China Daily, China’s national English-language newspaper, has reported on persistently increasing levels of pollution to this day.

This level of activity suggests that environmental activism may provide a new niche for political activism within China; residents have begun claiming that clean air should be a basic right. Dialogue has also reached the nation’s netizens: “People are forced to stay at home due to the bad air quality, not because of war or hostile foreign forces, but because of incompetent administrators in the country and the blood-stained GDP,” said a Sina microblog user. Notably, citizens also have foreign expatriates to attest to these horrifying conditions, perhaps giving this new wave of activism a degree of political protection. International media coverage can only be adding more pressure – the US embassy has been publishing pollution data in Beijing for years.

This combination of a call for basic rights like physical health and the international pressure seems to have given Chinese citizens grounds, and maybe even the courage, to voice harsher opinions of their government. The new cabinet should take the opinions and use them to their advantage to craft sustainable policies. Environmental issues have persisted in China for years, and providing the policies and incentives to mitigate this long-standing issue would allow the newly appointed cabinet to address old problems with new attitudes. It can, furthermore, prove the legitimacy of the government and its structure.

Environmentalists and analysts have already suggested a complex mix of causes for widespread air pollution: over-reliance on heavy industry and coal, poor enforcement of pollution laws, hundreds of thousands of new cars on the road, and incentives for local officials to promote economic growth. It is now simply a question of whether the Chinese government can hear their nation’s grievances and implement the proper policies for this unique nation.

– Tiffany Lam


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works rytc. Creative Commons, Flickr)

(Photo 1 Body: Attribution  FriendsofEurope, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Tiffany Lam

Student of Political Science and History at McGill University. Tiffany’s interest in China stems from spending most of her life living in two very different Chinese cities, Hong Kong and Beijing. She is also interested in writing about international institutions.

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