China faces much bigger challenge than Dickens did
Beijing should stop using coal to tackle pollution problem, but this may slow economic growth
Walking through Beijing's Tiananmen Square last week, a German family of five surrounded me, all wearing large face masks and sunglasses. They weren't robbing me, just asking me to take their photo. When I yelled the customary "Say 'cheese'", the dad joked: "We are smiling under here."
Only China's pollution bubble is no laughing matter, and tourists tell the story. Thanks to extreme air pollution, foreign arrivals plunged about 50 per cent in the first three quarters of the year. Beijing could see even fewer visitors to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, thanks to images of acrid smog that have been beaming around the globe.
The timing doesn't help. Jokes about renaming the city "Greyjing" or "Beige-jing" precede the third plenary meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee, starting on Saturday.
In a more democratic system, that might increase the urgency to act boldly to address the bad-air crisis. But early signals aren't encouraging. News media leaks have the party's Central Committee crafting a vague blueprint for readjusting the country's economic structure. Nowhere are there hints the plan will do what China really needs to do: ban coal.
The conventional wisdom is that China will eventually get serious about the environment, and when it does, the skies will turn blue before we know it. This view finds comfort in the experiences of Britain and the United States and concludes that Beijing's toxic-air challenge pales in comparison with London's back in the days of Charles Dickens. But what if the comparison is a false one? What if China's crisis is different and harder to reverse?
China is entering uncharted territory - navigating the demands of a newly vocal middle class without the democratic and civil institutions that helped Japan and the US clean up environmental damage in the 1970s. It's also doing so with higher levels of corruption.
The party is playing with fire. Anger over pollution has replaced land grabs as the primary cause of social unrest. Fewer than 1 per cent of China's 500 largest cities meet the World Health Organisation's air quality standards, while seven are ranked among the 10 most polluted in the world. Walking the streets of Beijing, it's hard not to feel like you are trapped in an airport smoking lounge.
As China chokes on its success, the solution is obvious: phase out the use of coal immediately. Flush with US$3.7 trillion of currency reserves, China could finance a transition to natural gas. Doing so requires political will of the kind that neither President Xi Jinping nor Premier Li Keqiang has displayed. When China does make the transition away from coal, the economy will slow significantly in ways that would damage state-owned enterprises.
China's new leaders are acting in other ways. A series of embarrassments this year, not least of them thousands of dead pigs floating in the Huangpu River near Shanghai and myriad food contamination scandals - and the increased frequency of protests leave them little choice. In August, China promised to spend about US$275 billion to improve air quality.
"Of course, the country continues to be an investment destination and expats will come here in numbers, but it is definitely harder to sell Beijing as a posting," says Kobus van der Wath, the founder of Beijing Axis, an international advisory firm. "Also, the level of dissatisfaction among Chinese was/is very high at the times when pollution was/is at its worst."
But there's little sign China understands the extent to which bad air is imperiling investment. Many of the government's ideas about cleaning up first-tier cities involve moving coal-burning plants towards Shanxi province and Inner Mongolia - in other words, redistributing pollution to less populated areas. Better emissions standards are vital, too. Last year alone, China added more cars than the total number that plied its roads in 1999.
Once Britain and the US got serious about reducing carbon emissions, the transition away from coal took a few decades. But China doesn't have decades. So Beijing can rail against the foreign media for exaggerating its grey air. It can pretend wind turbines, solar farms and other renewables alone will do the trick. But China should do the inevitable and curb coal use today. Otherwise, the only tourists heading to Beijing in the years ahead will be adventure seekers donning gas masks.