by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
PERSISTENT SMOG in Beijing for the past week has made international news, on account of the Chinese government declaring an “orange” alert for hazardous air pollution. Pictures of Beijing’s landmarks having disappeared under thick smog circulate on the Internet, along with the memes that Chinese citizens have created to make light of the situation. At levels of more than 600 micrograms per cubic meter, particulate pollution was over twenty-four times over World Health Organization’s health safety limits.
Pictures of Beijing landmarks, made invisible by smog, circulated as an Internet meme by Chinese netizens. Photo credit: Borderless News WeChat Account
It would be an ironic time for smog to blanket Beijing, given that this was concurrent with a United Nations climate summit which took place in Paris on Monday in which Xi Jinping was in attendance. Chinese authorities have blamed the past days’ smog on poor weather conditions. However, periods of heavy smog is an endemic condition to Beijing, as a product of the coal burning factories within the city and the geography of the city as surrounded by mountains. Beijing is not even China’s most polluted city—though it has attracted more attention about its air pollution than other, more heavily polluted cities in China as Shijiazhuang or Xintai. Even in the past week, twenty-three cities across China were suffering the effects of smog, but most attention went to Beijing. And the worst smog may be yet to come.
Smog Conditions as an International Problem
RECENTLY WE see smog conditions in other parts of Asia. Taiwan recently has seen much smog across the nation in past weeks, which was sometimes blamed on smog drifting over from China. But this was a product of air pollution within Taiwan itself. Smog conditions in Taipei at 60 micrograms still does not compare to conditions in Beijing, over ten times worse, though still over safety limits. In regards to reporting on pollution in Asian cities outside of China, generally little is reported on. As some have pointed out, New Delhi has comparable air conditions to Beijing and lacks any comparable health safety warning system to Beijing, but this is rarely discussed altogether.
The orange alert issued by Chinese authorities led to the closures of some roadways due to poor visibility and advisories to stay indoors. The orange alert also enacted restrictions on the activities of polluting factories in the hopes of clearing up conditions. Some have criticized that the Chinese government did not issue a “red” alert, which would have led to cancellation of schools and other activities. If a cold front has now cleared up weather conditions, it is that the skies of Beijing have cleared up…for now. But Beijing is slated to issue its first “red” alert for smog ever Tuesday.
Photo credit: AP
It may be ironic that the cold front was ultimately what cleared up the smog, not the restrictions on factories put into effect after the declaration of the orange alert. Because this past year for important events in Beijing such as the APEC summit or the large-scale military parade which took place in September, the skies has cleared up, as if by miracle, because of authorities restricting the activities of polluting factories before both events. For events in which the eyes of the international world are set upon China, government authorities would prefer blue skies.
If the skies of Beijing normally anything but blue, this is a consequence of that polluting factories normally remaining in operation because of the need for continued economic growth. For the economic rise of China to continue, factories must remain in operation. This is despite the very real human costs of air pollution in China. Studies have linked 1.6 million deaths per year from heart, lung and stroke problems connected to air pollution, meaning 4,000 people die daily of air pollution in China. Such are the human costs of sustained economic growth, apparently.
Will China’s Environmental Woes Lead to Future Dissent?
THAT THE government can apparently conjure away air pollution when needed, like magic, has led to much dissatisfaction from Chinese citizens. Earlier this year, the terms of “APEC Blue” and “Parade Blue” were coined to refer to the spontaneous blue skies which emerged for the APEC summit and September military parade. Although recent pollution has led to a lot of gallows humor from Chinese citizens—including various memes created by netizens and an artist who created a brick by vacuuming up particulate matter from the air in Beijing over a period of time—there are also deeper dissatisfactions at work.
Given that air pollution particularly affects the young and the old, many Chinese citizens are worried about family members and loved ones. If the government can make pollution disappear so easily, why does it not do so all the time? Although in past cases of dissatisfaction against government handling of ecological and climate issues, Chinese citizens are willing to accept the claim of the government that this is needed for the greater good of economic growth, it may be that one day they will no longer accept such excuses.
“APEC Blue” during last year’s APEC conference. Photo credit: Getty Images
The Chinese government knows this as well, as we can see in the initially positive response by government actors to Chai Jing’s documentary “Under the Dome”, seen as a favorable call for reform, and then the banning of it for fear that government criticism as a result of viewings of the documentary would get out of hand. This was an act sometimes justified with back bending pseudo-Leftist excuses from the New Left and Neo-Maoists. The Chinese government generally fears unleashing forces of social dissent which it is unable to to control.
As one of the most visible signs of government failings in China, air pollution is a prominent example of the issues which loom large in China concerning issues of people’s health and livelihood sacrificed in favor of economic development. Would this be another case of the government overreacting and seeing threats to its authority where none exist? Or will air pollution be an issue which will set off a powder keg of dissent one day? The possibilities for a mass social demonstrations across China are limited at present. Even when demonstrations can be unexpectedly large as we saw with the past summer’s Shanghai PX protests, any movement national in scale seems unlikely. But it often a sudden shift when apparent quiescence turns into rage.
And ultimately, it is that smog or other environmental issues are a global problem and can only be addressed on an international basis. What will it take to see environmental issues addressed on a transnational basis, with the understanding that such problems stem from unfettered capitalist growth?