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Beijing pollution levels still a problem, but people are collectively striving for change

With sustained pressure, residents of China’s most polluted cities may have the subversive ability to influence air quality management.

Those who move to China from other countries often find that they are unable to stick to their outdoor exercise regimes for very long, even in the ‘second-tier’ or smaller cities. Although many such cities are rarely heard of in the West, significant numbers of them have GDPs on a par with entire countries, but air quality regularly falling foul of World Health Organization standards.

One of these is Chengdu, a southwestern city with an economy the size of Norway’s. A recent analysis has shown that in 2018, Chengdu’s air pollution surpassed that of the capital, Beijing. This could be considered shocking, considering that Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is normally pictured enrobed in a thick grey smog, with mask-wearing passers-by barely visible and Mao’s face peeping through the soot.

Beijing is the world’s poster child for ultimate air-quality mismanagement; the home of the ‘airpocalypse’. Recently it appears that crown has passed to New Delhi. So has Beijing’s notorious reputation changed?

Beijing Pollution My Good Planet
December 9, 2015. A Beijing park showing visible signs of serious air pollution. (c) Kyodo AP

In 2015, summer days in ‘Greyjing’ were unexpectedly bright and blue. Perhaps the most fallaciously pretty afternoon was during the National Day celebrations of October 2015 – the previous day had chucked it down, but on the grand day itself it was as if APEC had come round again.

APEC Blue’ was the name given to the highly unusual blue skies during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Beijing the previous year (when Chengdu’s annual PM 2.5, a measure of miniscule particles in the air, was at a record high). Then it became a term used to describe anything beautiful but fleeting – an ominous indicator of how fallible such days really are.

That very same year, the documentary Under the Dome’ by the spectacular Chai Jing went viral. The monumental wake-up call it created was like an oriental Silent Spring, and of course, within a week the film was censored – but not before hitting 300 million views. It outlined Jing’s daughter’s in utero tumour caused by terrible air and laid into China’s biggest polluters. At the end, she encouraged viewers to say ‘No, I’m not satisfied, I don’t want to wait. I want to stand up and do a little something.’

And people did a little something. Nothing on a 1989 Movement scale, obviously, but some online grumbling that got noticed. Beijing had for years already been moving the factories out of the city centre, riling up the older generation who’d lost their jobs as a result. This had transferred the grey problem in a big way to surrounding provinces like Hebei (which Chinese people now stereotype as polluted), but Beijing’s coldest months still had a smog elephant to deal with.

Every mid-November, Beijing flips on the central heating. This keeps people in the little hutong courtyard houses cosy during the tundra-like climes (and shut up – in more senses than one). But there is a big cost to this. The energy it takes to heat a city of 22 million via a system of underground pipes means an unbelievable amount of coal being burned, and consequently a fat shroud of smog over the capital. Sometimes the Gobi Desert also enjoys dumping yellow clouds of sand whenever it gets a bit windy (which, in winter, is often) – amounting to suffocating atmospheric conditions.

In 2017 the CCP tried banning coal for heating and replacing it with natural gas, which it turned out they didn’t have enough of, leaving a ton of people in Hebei out in the cold. Naturally, Hebei-ers were frosty about this and the CCP had to revert to the black stuff.

But like Chai Jing, many more city-dwellers are complaining about the long-term effects pollution has on general health and well-being, especially that of their children. These mostly nouveau-middle-classers live in Beijing and Shanghai and can afford to consider the luxuries of clean air, occasionally disappearing to Taiwan, Japan or New Zealand to detox their lungs. To placate these higher net worth individuals, whose mass dissatisfaction could threaten the stability of the regime, the biggest cities started mobilising in a big way to clean up the skies.

And it seemed to be working, if you took the word of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The US embassy, which unofficially but more reliably monitors Beijing’s air, had readings which suggested PM2.5 concentrations in winter 2017 were more than 50% lower than in 2016 – in agreement with the official stats.

Of course, the city’s air is far from comparable with that of its European counterparts. But it could always be dealt with temporarily by a magic weather machine or cloud-dispersing rockets to maintain a sunny façade, as is what probably happened for that nostalgic National Day parade in 2015. Back then, people used to smoke to filter out the pollution. But in 2017, there were fewer masks and fewer smokers. Maybe, just maybe, there was less to filter?

Some commentators believe Beijing has reached post-development, where ordinary residents have more economic clout to call out the damage from the industrialisation that made them rich. Meanwhile, in second- and third-tier cities like Chengdu, development continues at all costs. It may take several years before enough people get to the wealth levels that allow them to ‘do a little something’.

Unfortunately, all that glitters  is not gold. In the first two months of winter 2018, Beijing’s pollution was actually WORSE than in 2017, indicating a return to old ways. Perhaps renewing calls from urbanites and international pressure would incentivise the government to keep up ostentatious APEC blue performances and coal reduction commitments. Like with the rest of the world, in China the call of economic growth is just too appealing to resist. But as Chai Jing has shown, ordinary people can stand up and say ‘no’.

Header Image (c) (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
Sally Jensen
Sally Jensen

Sally Jensen's background in languages has helped her become aware of how environmental breakdown is affecting communities all over the planet; from Peru to China. A former project coordinator for an environmental NGO, her mission is to bring the unheard stories of others around the world to an audience who can take action and make a difference.