“We only wait for the wind.”
Zheng Liang, a Chinese teacher at Minzu University in Beijing, describes what she and most Beijingers do when smog storms hit China’s capital. Speaking frankly to a class of two students, including myself, her frustrations bleed through in the way she discusses pollution in China. She means every word of her comment about the wind. When smog rolls into Beijing, the only thing to do is wait. Often, waiting merely for wind is insufficient; mountains that border three sides of Beijing trap smog particles in the metropolitan area, which means the only wind that can truly clear smog must come from the north.
Like many concerned citizens, Liang is dissatisfied with the way that the government handles China’s air pollution problem, and criticizes its neglect of an issue for which its development policies are partly responsible. She believes that waiting for the government to take swift action to reduce air pollution is ultimately akin to waiting for the wind to come. Liang says that she feels the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection has no teeth to fight the suffocating air. As a resident of a city whose air can be poisonous, her frustrations mirror those of many young people in Beijing considering raising families there.
“It has no authority over whether companies produce machinery in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way, and even with proof that they don’t, it is unable to inflict any punishment on these companies,” Liang says with frustration and disappointment. This inability is also often mixed with unwillingness: coal-burning factories often employ thousands of employees, and shutting them down would cause substantial unemployment, hurting local economies. In addition, China’s GDP growth is slowing: in 2014, the country failed to reach the government’s target for the first time, and its reported growth of 7.4 percent was the slowest since 1990.
Given these circumstances, it seems unlikely that the government would shut down large factories for environmental reasons. Both the wind and the government are temperamental and unreliable solutions; while their temporary nature may hold off the air pollution for a handful of days or weeks, both have failed to trigger long-term changes to China’s environment. However, for short-term events that thrust China onto the global stage, including the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou, the government has taken measures to curb pollution by shutting down factories and construction sites, resulting in a near-immediate improvement in air quality. For many Chinese citizens, these welcome breaks from pollution are bittersweet, as they also serve as reminders of the government’s unwillingness to bring about meaningful change.
Air pollution has long been known as an ongoing phenomenon that affects daily life across China, a sprawling developing nation that depends on coal as its primary energy source. The problem, however, was thrust into the international spotlight last December when Beijing instituted a new pollution warning system and issued its first-ever pollution-related red alert. A second one came within the following week after the city government lifted the first. The red alert all but paralyzed the capital: schools closed, construction sites, and factories shut down, and the city government placed restrictions on the amount of cars allowed on roads.
Accurately measuring the amount of pollution in the air is challenging. The Air Quality Index, a measurement of air pollution that takes into account pollutant particles of varying sizes, is commonly used by both Chinese and foreign residents of Beijing. However, the index only displays air particle concentrations up to 500 units, making it difficult to truly measure the scope of the air pollution, especially during a red alert. Though Liang bitterly recalled the December smog storms, she did laugh as I, a foreigner in Beijing, complained about an AQI of approximately 200. “We start getting concerned when we see an AQI of 350 to 400. What would our lives be like if we worried about lower levels of pollution!” Liang said. Her fatalism seems to extend all the way up to the state level: for example, Beijing’s standards for acceptable air quality far surpass those of the World Health Organization.
Her words serve as a reminder that while the rest of the world watched time lapse videos of a smog storm rolling into Beijing and shadows of human beings enveloped by thick and dark smog, residents of Beijing live the reality of air pollution every day. Beijing’s citizens are regularly exposed high concentrations of PM2.5 air pollutants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PM2.5 particles are small enough to enter a person’s bloodstream through their lungs, and are extremely harmful to the human body even in small doses, let alone under chronic exposure. These pernicious particles are also responsible for environmental pollution and Beijing’s thick smog — they have emerged as an unavoidable part of China’s air for several reasons.
China is the world’s leading consumer and producer of coal, which contributes to the emergence of these particles. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), China was responsible for half of the world’s coal consumption in 2012. The EIA projected only a slight decrease in that share to 46 percent by 2040. Within China, the amount of coal burned to generate electricity was more than double total U.S. coal consumption, and China’s industrial sector similarly burned just under double total U.S. coal consumption. Overall, China consumes approximately four times as much coal as the U.S., showing the importance of electricity generation in China’s total coal consumption. Considering the lack of enforceable environmental protection regulations, this rampant coal consumption has been the major contributor to China’s overall air pollution problem.
Pollution often also comes from within China’s largest cities. In 2015, the Ministry of Environmental Protection cited exhaust fumes as a major contributor to air pollution, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences has published a study that cites exhaust fumes as the leading cause of pollution in Beijing specifically. The root of the exhaust fume problem lies in the sheer number of vehicles. In 2014, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in 2014 estimated that there were 5.4 million vehicles owned by Beijing residents. Twice a day, rush hour traffic causes massive spikes in PM2.5 levels, creating hazardous conditions for passers-by.
The government also bears partial blame for the severity of exhaust fume pollution in Beijing and China’s other major metropolises. Because of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s failure to enforce regulations aimed at reducing air pollution, many trucks traveling in and out of the city to transport trash, construction materials, and basic necessities like food produce use low-quality gas that fails to meet quality requirements and produce high levels of unsafe emissions as a result. Thus, as the amount of cars in Beijing continues to grow, the city’s residents are left “waiting for the wind” for the government to take stricter environmental protection measures, all the while suffering the consequences of each breath of air filled with polluted particulate matter.
Despite the government’s evident failure to curb pollution and enforce environmental regulations, citizen responses have remained limited. While many citizens willingly acknowledge the government’s shortcomings in dealing with environmental issues, there have only been a few instances of open criticism in the past few years. In 2014, Chai Jing, a Chinese journalist who gained nationwide renown following her reports on the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, produced Under the Dome, a self-financed documentary on air pollution in China. The documentary features her undercover investigative reporting, including interviews with people ranging from coal plant operators and Beijing truck drivers to experts from China’s best universities. One week after its release, it had been viewed nearly 300 million times, and the Chinese government removed it from any website accessible in mainland China.
The documentary, still available on YouTube, represented the first major public criticism of the government’s handling of China’s air pollution situation. It also shed a human light on the issue — Chai’s motivation to produce the film was deeply personal. While the journalist was pregnant, her daughter developed a benign tumor. In the documentary, Chai expresses her belief that China’s polluted air caused her daughter’s tumor, and made her unable to provide a safe and healthy environment for her child. Ultimately, this also plays into Liang’s and many young citizens’ fear of raising families in China: when starting a family, especially in a major city, they are choosing between preserving a connection to their extended family and culture and sacrificing access to a reliably healthy environment.
In response to this difficult choice, some regular citizens have also engaged in protest to demand more from the Communist Party. In Xi’an, a few hours northwest of the nearest major city, Chengdu, students at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts placed masks on 1,000 stone statues of lions as part of an environmental protest. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, a group of artists all wearing masks participated in a small-scale silent protest in Tianfu Square, the heart of the city, in December 2016. Authorities questioned them and subsequently closed down the square, a bustling shopping district, for the weekend. As I walked around Tianfu Square in March on a trip to Chengdu, nothing seemed amiss as tourists and locals alike shopped in the cloudy but mostly clean air. Often, however, Chengdu’s air pollution levels rival Beijing’s, which ultimately triggered the artists’ protest.
The Chengdu protest shows that China’s strict laws prohibiting public assembly have made protest an ineffective way of expressing public opinion. Thus, some citizens have also taken different routes to protest the government’s inability to reduce pollution in China’s biggest metropolises. Following the December smog storm that triggered Beijing’s first pollution-related red alert, a group of lawyers brought a lawsuit against Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei Province’s governments, given their combined high concentration of heavy industries and high population density. Although the government has the ability to simply reject the lawsuit, government media outlets like the Global Times reported on the lawsuit, and the Communist Party has set up specific legal channels to accommodate environmental lawsuits against companies accused of violating government regulations.
In addition to the varied methods that members of Chinese civil society have found to voice their frustrations, it seems that willingness to criticize the government’s efforts at dealing with pollution suffers from a generational gap. While younger Chinese citizens like Liang seem more open to criticizing the government and even taking action to protest China’s air pollution problem, older people often seem more reluctant. I spoke to my Chinese host mother, a longtime resident of Beijing, about her views on the situation, as we walked through a park near her home. She and her husband are archetypal Chinese retirees: together, they volunteer at their local community service center, and spend most mornings at the park near their polished home, participating in traditional singing and dancing activities with friends. During our conversation, I was disappointed to hear what sounded like the content of a government campaign to promote individual responsibility for reducing air pollution.
Though she acknowledged that Beijing’s air quality had worsened over the long-term, she insisted that in the past few years the government’s measures had improved the quality of the city’s air. She praised an increase in the use of public transportation and in the city’s green space, as well as the limits on the use of heating in winter. “I truly believe our city’s air quality is improving and will continue to improve,” she continued, despite my questions about the December smog storm and her thoughts on how the pollution might affect her newborn grandson. As we walked, I could not help but notice the beautiful weather around us, and remembered that the Chinese government’s annual summit, the Two Sessions (known in China as lianghui), was in progress–yet another reminder that the government ultimately has the power to at least alleviate the problem. Meanwhile, Beijingers wait for the wind.
Andrea Moneton is a senior at Georgetown University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.