As Beijing faces the possibility of another ‘airpocalypse’ this winter, the Chinese people are more environmentally conscious and increasingly willing to protest against dangerous pollution
The smog is back and the threat of another “airpocalypse” hangs heavy over Beijing. Late last week, PM2.5 readings hit 550 micrograms per cubic meter, more than 20 times higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limit of 25µg/m³. There’s no mystery to the cause of this soupy, polluted, metallic-tasting concoction that makes up the capital’s air: fossil fuel combustion.
Three decades of industrialisation have brought a prosperity to China that those living under Mao would have found unimaginable. And with it has come toxic air that they would have found equally unimaginable.
This time of year in Beijing, air quality is especially bad. The biting cold means that the coal-fired heating in the capital and the surrounding Tianjin-Hebei area is operating at full-throttle. Meanwhile, below-freezing temperatures are an invitation to the locals to abandon walking and bicycling in favour of the warmth of petrol-fuelled cars, no matter how snarled the traffic.
Coal and cars are the culprits robbing Beijing — and much of the rest of China — of clean, healthy air.
The Chinese leadership, I suspect, is feeling anxious. A return of the airpocalypse, the off-the-chart air pollution (above 500µg/m³) that lingered over Beijing for much of January 2013, would have not only serious environmental consequences, but likely social and political ones as well.
The Chinese public’s awareness of air pollution — and its deleterious effects on human health — is light years ahead of where it was in early 2013. At that time, most Chinese, like everyone else in the world, were unfamiliar with the term “PM2.5.” But with the airpocalypse, Chinese became obsessed with daily PM2.5 readings, and the mobile apps devoted to tracking its levels proliferated. By the end of 2013 PM2.5 ranked #3 on the list of most popular memes in the country.
In short, Chinese people today are more environmentally conscious — and are looking more insistently to the government to safeguard the country’s air.
Prior to January 2013 Chinese people could, of course, see the blanket of soot that enveloped the city and feel the sting in their eyes and the scratchiness in their throat, but they had no way of understanding the serious long-term cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory damage that the microscopic particles in the air they breathed could do to their bodies.
Since then, a number of influential, international scientific studies have been published, and they have caused quite a stir in China. The people there have learned that in the year 2010 alone roughly 1,200,000 of their countrymen died prematurely from “ambient particulate matter pollution”. They’ve learned too that in the two decades from 1981-2001 the life expectancy of the 500 million Chinese living in the north was a full 5.5 years shorter than that of their fellow citizens in the south. The reason? Heavier coal use for heating during the north’s frigid winters.
They’ve also learned that although air pollution may be a necessary byproduct of the country’s growing prosperity, the pollutants exact a particularly high a toll on young children. The respiratory systems of the young are less immune to the assaults of the fine particles. State media reported that during the airpocalpyse more than 9,000 children a day received treatment at Beijing Children’s Hospital for respiratory ailments. In a society where most parents are limited to one child, little matters more than that child’s health.
Now, when PM2.5 hits the “hazardous” level (300µg/m³), parents keep their kids at home from school. And, if they can afford it, they might send their kids to private schools that have all-campus filtration systems, equipped with huge pressurised sports domes where students get daily “outdoor” exercise. Some parents have even begun packing up their families for good, leaving Beijing for the countryside or relatively undeveloped places in China’s southwest — and even abroad, for places like the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK.
To the dismay of the Beijing leadership, the Chinese people have become less reticent about taking to the streets to voice their mounting discontent with the wretched condition of the environment. These protests, until now, have been largely localised, of the not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) type. But there exists the concern that their number and intensity could one day coalesce into an organised, nationwide movement – potentially oppositional to the state.
In the spring of 2013 a former party official reported that pollution had overtaken land disputes as the main cause of social unrest in the country. With such public displeasure on the rise, Premier Li Keqiang in March of 2014 declared “war on pollution” and, indeed, the remainder of the year saw the Chinese government announce a range of deliberate measures intended to tackle the environmental crisis.
So what happens if, this winter, Beijing is visited by airpocalypse II, by days and weeks of air more polluted, more injurious to public health than that found in an airport smoking lounge? Will the public be tolerant, trusting that the leadership is doing all that it can? Or will it become impatient, concluding that Li’s declaration of war was hollow and that the government isn’t engaging the enemy with the necessary conviction or force? Could an airpocalypse II trigger massive expressions of frustration with the country’s leadership?
In November of this past year, when Beijing hosted the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference (Apec) forum, the government shut down factories, took half of the city’s cars off the streets, and granted special holidays to workers to reduce activity in the capital — and the sky complied, turning blue for the duration of the summit.
While the particular measures taken for Apec may not be workable in the long-term, the return of the airpocalypse could provoke the public — with memories of “Apec blue” still fresh – to demand to know why their government could manage to clear the skies for foreign dignitaries but not for the citizens of the country who have to breathe the air year-in and year-out.
I imagine that these winter days, whenever the PM2.5 index approaches 500, Bejing’s leaders will cross their proverbial fingers. An airpocalypse II could raise very uncomfortable questions. It would not be a welcome visitor.