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  • Apr 16, 2014
  • Updated: 11:46pm
Column
PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:35pm

It's as clear as day - China needs its own Clean Air Act

The new leadership has paid greater mind to pollution, but much more needs to be done to ease the country's worsening smog crisis

BIO

Wang Xiangwei took up the role of Editor-in-Chief in February 2012, responsible for the editorial direction and newsroom operations. He started his 20-year career at the China Daily, before moving to the UK, where he gained valuable experience at a number of news organisations, including the BBC Chinese Service. In 1993, he moved to Hong Kong and worked at the Eastern Express before joining the South China Morning Post in 1996 as our China Business Reporter. He was subsequently promoted to China Editor in 2000 and Deputy Editor in 2007, a position he held for four years prior to being promoted to his current position. Mr. Wang has a Masters degree in Journalism, and a Bachelors degree in English.
 

Last week, a pleased Shanghai doctor who performed a successful cataract operation gingerly led his patient to the window for him to see the city's skyline for the first time, but instead of a delightful cry, the patient batted his eyelids several times and began to shout at the doctor for botching the job.

That is one of the dozens of jokes flying around the country's social media as Shanghai and more than 100 other major mainland cities were enveloped in the choking and hazardous smog last week.

Visibility in some eastern cities was reduced to less than 50 metres and to less than five metres in the worst hit places, where PM2.5 concentrations hit 500 micrograms per cubic metre. The World Health Organisation's recommended level for the pollutant is 25mcg per cubic metre.

To be sure, air quality in China typically plummets in winter months as the heating systems in cities north of the Yangtze River depend on coal. But the scale and severity of the smog last week was the worst in recent memory as it covered not only the northern cities like Beijing but also a large number of cities south of the Yangtze which do not burn coal for heating, including Shanghai, Nanjing , and other parts of the Yangtze River delta.

According to the national observatory, 104 cities in more than 20 provinces last Friday reported PM2.5 readings at more than 300, classified as severe, the highest in the six-level rating system.

The authorities blamed the lack of wind, coal burning in the north, exhaust emissions from the massive number of cars, and industrial pollution from the large concentration of steel and cement factories in the Yangtze River delta. But officials failed to explain that, given that none of the above factors is new, why was the smog last week the most severe in recent years.

Fortunately for tens of millions of suffering mainlanders, relief seems to be on the way as the national observatory forecast strong winds to blow across much of the country starting from yesterday afternoon.

It is sad to note that despite the severity of the smog and its hazardous impact on people's lives, neither the central government leaders nor the officials from those affected cities have come out publicly to apologise and discuss ways to address the issue.

Unfortunately, it has become one of those issues in China that affects everyone badly but for which no one is willing to take any responsibility.

After 35 years of double-digit growth rates, which turned the country's economy into the world's second largest, mainlanders are now suffering fully from the negative impact.

The smog is getting worse daily and reaching almost all corners of the country. Earlier this year, even Hainan , well known for its blue skies and sandy beaches, was covered in heavy smog.

More than 70 per cent of the country's rivers and lakes are heavily polluted and deemed unfit even for animals to drink and much of the country's underground water was also equally polluted.

Media are regularly reporting on diseases linked directly to pollution. Last month it emerged that an eight-year-old girl who lived beside a busy road in Jiangsu had become the mainland's youngest lung cancer patient. Her doctor was quoted as saying her illness was the result of her breathing in pollutants from car exhaust fumes.

Many more mainlanders now say that they want to migrate to other countries and foreign businessmen refuse to relocate to the mainland partly because of the pollution.

The new leadership under President Xi Jinping has shown more willingness to tackle pollution as it tries to slow the breakneck economic growth.

But the efforts have been half-hearted at best. Last month, the Communist Party held its landmark meeting and unveiled its blueprint which was supposed to bring the country's development to a new level.

It indeed contained some exciting grand goals and slogans including allowing the market forces to play "the decisive" role in the economy and boosting mainlanders' living standards. But it contains little on how to tackle environmental degradation.

Last week, photos comparing today's masked mainlanders wallowing in thick smog to the Londoners facing the similar situation in the 1950s and 1960s went viral on the internet. The smog killed thousands of people in Britain before the authorities there took decisive steps to introduce the Clean Air Act to bring pollution under control.

It is time that the mainland leadership learnt from those lessons and takes steps to introduce China's own Clean Air Act. After all, what good is achieving Xi's Chinese "dream of rejuvenation" if people cannot breathe the air or drink the water.

xiangwei.wang@scmp.com

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This article is now closed to comments

Alexswe
While I appreciate the writing and topic I find the choice of headline to be quite interesting as a day in mainland (Shanghai) to be far from clear most given days.
Beaker
For air quality to improve: If money was spent on "useless, non profitable" things like smoke stack scrubbers and cleaning sulfur out of fuels, then there will be less to steal. This is why China always talks about smog, but does not actually do a thing about it. Corruption. They should re-incentivize corruption, so that buying environmentally friendly equipment gets to benefit from corruption, like how the windfarms without cables and solar subsidies qualified for funds. Then, businesses will install air cleaning technologies because there will be money available to be stolen.
stephen.kennedy.545849
The number one priority should be a massive buildout of nuclear power, with a halt to construction of coal plants. That will do more to improve air quality than any other step, although many other policy changes are also necessary.
Beaker
Yes Stephan, you trust the Chinese to build nuclear powerplants with their tofu-jia mentality? They did it with high speed rail, for trains to go 350 kph over such bridges. They don't care as long as they can grab the money, buy citizenship in Canada or other places selling passports, and buy a house in Vancouver. A good sized Fukushima type disaster, covered up initially until full meltdown, sort of like Tepco did, lets say in Szechuan and 25% of Southern China out to HK will be done for errh, the next 25000 years. Good call Kennedy.
lucifer
These are all grand ideas, but you need to have the rule of law first and in order to achieve that you will need political reform. Sorry, there is no other way. Political reform includes getting Party bodies out of courts. Without this, China can make 5 million more laws and they will all do not good. China is slowly becoming one giant Chernobyl.
davidwilson
Great. And China just eradicated its one-child birth control policy. Total insanity.

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