An archipelago known for its Buddhist temples, the Tibetan capital and a seaside city known for corrupt real estate deals, are the only three cities in China to meet national air quality standards, in a stark illustration of how pervasive pollution has become in the world’s most populous country.
Unrelenting smog – including a week-long stretch last month of “hazardous” air in Beijing – has become a focus for public discontent, particularly in prosperous urban areas. Last week, Li Keqiang, China’s premier, told the annual meeting of the country’s legislature that his government would wage “war on pollution”.
Haikou, the capital of sub-tropical Hainan Island, Zhoushan – an archipelago just south of Shanghai that consists of 1,390 islands and 1.1 million people – and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, were the only three to meet national standards in a survey of 74 of the nation’s largest cities, vice-minister of environmental protection Wu Shaoqing told journalists at the wekend.
Of the 10 worst cities, seven were in Hebei, the industrial province that rings Beijing where winter pollution levels regularly go off the scale.
Last year, China issued a plan to cut emissions and polluting steel capacity in the populous east – particularly in Hebei – while encouraging more coal and industrial development in the poor and arid west of the country.
Hebei officials have hastened to demonstrate their commitment by inviting state television to film the detonation of steel mills and cement plants. But steel industry officials say most of these blown up were already closed due to high debt levels and poor profitability, throwing doubt over any long-term impact on pollution levels.
Sixteen of Hebei’s 148 steel plants have closed for economic reasons, provincial governor Zhang Qingwei said on Friday, allowing Hebei to meet its closure targets sooner than required. Mr Li said in his address to the legislature that the national target of shuttering 60m tonnes of steel capacity by 2017 would be met one year earlier than originally planned.
Smog blankets Shanghai
December 2013: Shanghai residents discuss the impact of poor air quality after the city wracked up its worst pollution level since records began in December
The central government has attempted for many years to regulate pollution and industrial overcapacity by mandating shutdowns, an approach that tends to backfire as industrial bosses frantically expand to create plants too big to fail.
An environmental tax could be considered at the annual session of the legislature, under way this week. Changes to China’s 1989 environmental protection law are undergoing a third round of revisions, Mr Wu said: “We believe the biggest part to be revised is how to fix the problem that the cost of polluting is low while the cost of mitigating it is high.”
For many Chinese cities, part of the problem is that local polluters are often the biggest taxpayers and employers, or have tight ties to local governments. Most of the 10 best cities cited by Mr Wu are on the coast, where sea breezes clear the air.