Why’s China’s Smog Crisis Still Burning So Hot?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Alex Wang:

On Sunday, the start of the winter heating season in northern China brought the “airpocalypse” back with a vengeance.

Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province and home to 11 million people, registered fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution levels beyond 500, the top of the scale on the Chinese Air Quality Index, a level which is considered hazardous to human health. Measurements in some parts of the city reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter. As a result, authorities forced primary and middle school closures and the shutdown of the airport and local highways.

By contrast, Los Angeles, where I am now based and which typically has some of the worst air quality in the U.S., had U.S. Environmental Protection Agency AQI levels for PM2.5 between 48 and 108.

China’s severe air pollution problems and the high cost to human health, economic productivity, and quality of life by now are well known. The question is whether Chinese leaders are prepared to do what it takes to solve the problem, and, if their stated resolve is genuine, will they have the ability to implement?

As I have talked about previously, there have been some positive signs in 2013. Regulators have engaged in an impressive flurry of policy-making on air pollution, including an extensive “Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Action Plan, a timetable for developing new fuel quality standards, and emergency measures to protect citizens and reduce pollution on the worst air quality days.

Leaders have pledged the equivalent of billions of U.S. dollars in air pollution investments (see here). And authorities have announced an intention to link bureaucratic promotions to performance against air quality goals, perhaps one of the clearest signals that the leadership is taking air quality problems more seriously. (Here’s my recent article describing this system).

But Chinese citizens are not interested in mere expressions of resolve. The key will be in the implementation, and skeptics know that China’s problems in this regard are legion.

In recent years, scholars have talked about China’s “authoritarian resilience,” or the ability of the leadership to learn and adjust to rapidly changing problems. Pro-China commentators such as Eric Li have argued that China’s current governance system is well suited to the challenges China is facing. The proof, they say, is in China’s return to wealth and power under Communist Party rule.

China’s extreme air pollution problems, however, are a daily reminder to Chinese citizens (and the world) of a critical failure in governance. The leaders of the country therefore have the chance to prove themselves, and demonstrate that their approach to rule really can serve the people.


In the early part of this century there was a fierce debate between those who argued that China could develop first and clean up its environment later, and those who predicted that China would not reach real prosperity if it did not adopt a more sustainable model. Now the first group is finding out that cleaning up is really hard to do, while the second group has the grim satisfaction of seeing the scenario it predicted unfold. Economic growth has not stopped in China. But the costs of China’s pollution are now so serious for human health, food security, soil and water pollution, and on down the dismal list that it is not hard to argue that the negatives are beginning to cancel out the positives. More worrying for the government, and the people who must breathe the air, is the fact that for all the rhetoric, policy announcements, declarations of intent and promises, air pollution has grown steadily worse and more dangerous. The Beijing Olympics seem like a very long time ago. Last month, from the window of the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing, I watched the building opposite steadily fade into a blanket of smog. On a flight to Chengdu the next day, I was looking down at a continuous brown layer of smog that stretched from the east to Sichuan. What is in it? Coal is the prime culprit: China’s coal use has trebled since the 1980s and is predicted to continue to grow for a least a decade; nitrogen fertilizer, heavily over-used in China, is another component; car ownership has also rocketed and China’s cities are choking on slow moving or often stationary traffic, that belch out the residues and particulates from low quality fuel produced by China’s state-owned oil companies.

None of these sources can be shut down overnight and China’s air is not going to be clean any time soon: China can upgrade its coal fired power stations but it cannot keep the lights on, at present, without coal; will restrictions on car use for the urban middle classes succeed when all of China’s new cities have been built to a U.S. model of car dependency? It remains to be demonstrated. Even efforts to cut back on the waste of fertilizer have not, so far, proved ineffective. More plans and emergency measures are announced with each new crisis. The most recent announcement concerned the enforcement of no-drive days, depending on the license plate, a measure that Mexico City brought in nearly 30 years ago. It had no effect, despite, in theory, sweeping 20 per cent of the city’s cars off the road at any one time: people just bought a second car. Under the city’s current plan, Beijing will add 10,000 new cars to its streets every month and the bar for the no-drive measures has been set so high that it would only have been evoked a couple of times in the past twelve months.

China is the world’s second largest economy, but world status is not just about size. Sadly, Beijing has become a world capital that both foreigners and Chinese are increasingly reluctant to inhabit. It’s hard not to feel sorry for China’s policy makers, but it’s harder not to feel for its people.

It’s difficult to add much to what Alex and Isabel have said, so perhaps I can paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, who said “development is the only hard truth.” Today PM2.5 是硬道理 (shì yìng dàolǐ), or PM2.5 is a hard truth. Air pollution is one of of those problems that cannot be solved overnight, or hidden by cosmetic measures. Success in managing it cannot be fudged or faked.

On the other hand, if we in China want the money to continue flowing, we will have to breathe and let our children breathe the side effects of economic development. Nobody, not even the Communist Party of China, can make the smog disappear by simply making everyone drive electric cars or moving steel plants to Hebei. The consumer lifestyle has costs.

China’s inability to improve air quality, let alone keep it from worsening, points to two possibilities, neither appealing: either Beijing doesn’t care or it’s powerless.

At least a decade of campaigns, regulations, administrative measures, crackdowns and investment have failed. Is that because they were just all window dressing to appease the public? Or where they really good faith efforts thwarted by vested interests too greedy, shortsighted and venal to, say, lose a few bucks by turning on a sulfur scrubber at a power plant?

I’ve heard one Chinese official describe Beijing as “uninhabitable.” This official had the luxury of buying a retirement home in southern China. What happens to those left behind?