China pollution

Families demand China's leaders take action to curb worsening air pollution

Middle class want next week's annual political gatherings in Beijing to address the deteriorating air quality in many cities above all else

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 4:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 4:26pm

Middle class families on the mainland are hoping political leaders meeting next week in Beijing provide something money can't buy - clean air.

At first glance, Stella Zhou has it all. The 36-year-old brand manager of a foreign consumer products company in Shanghai owns a four-bedroom apartment downtown. She and her husband earn enough for Western luxuries and can afford to send their elder daughter to a top primary school as well as provide a comfortable life for their second daughter born last year.

But despite their comfortable lifestyle, like hundreds of millions of compatriots, both rich and poor, they lack clean air to breathe. It is a basic resource in most parts of the world but seems to have become a rare and precious commodity in China.

Every morning, Zhou checks the air quality with an app on her iPhone. Often the readings give her cause for anxiety. It is particular concerning for her father, who was diagnosed with lung cancer last year.

"I tell my parents not to take the children out to play if the air quality reading is bad," she sais. "If Shanghai has good [air readings] but other places such as Beijing have bad ones, I will check the direction of wind in the weather forecast and pray it does not come in from the north."

The Zhous have been using bottled water for years and the children are fed good quality formula milk from America. But she feels helpless about the polluted air, particularly about how it affects her two young children and her elderly parents.

"I can choose what to eat, but do I have a choice over the air we breathe? All I can do is to put an air purifier at home and buy my family many face masks - all kinds of face masks."

Zhou's predicament is shared by many residents of cities that have benefited from China's rapid urbanisation and economic development over the past 30 years, but who are now suffering the environmental consequences.

It is a challenge set to be raised next week when deputies of the national legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), and the national advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), meet in Beijing in their annual sessions to set the agenda for the coming year.

In the past week, around one-seventh of the country has been blanketed by smog , prompting "orange" health alerts from the authorities - mostly in the north and east - five days in a row. Such smog alerts have become increasingly frequent over the past two years.

In some cities , such as Harbin and Beijing, readings for PM2.5 - tiny smog particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometres that can lodge deep in the lungs - in the past six months have been up to 40 times the safety threshold set by the World Health Organisation of 25 micrograms per cubic metre.

Provincial people's congresses and people's political consultative conferences, a barometer of the NPC and CPPCC agendas, show how important the question of clean air and related issues have become.

I can choose what to eat, but do I have a choice over the air we breathe?
Stella Zhou

Twenty-eight provinces and provincial-level municipalities mentioned smog in their government work reports, a statement of their priorities, up from 10 last year.

Some authorities, such as those inBeijing and Hebei , listed targets to reduce the level of fine particle pollution such as PM2.5.

The Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party, made up mainly of professionals and intellectuals in the fields of health care, population and environmental protection, will file 49 proposals next week to the NPC and CPPCC - 15 of which promote environmental protection.

Dozens more proposals will focus on health care and increasing welfare for the elderly and children, according to a party document seen by the South China Morning Post.

The China Association for Promoting Democracy, which represents intellectuals in the education sector, dedicated nearly one third of its 29 proposals to environmental protection.

"What I care most about in the coming sessions are does our government know exactly where the smog comes from? Will they take action and set a target? Do they have a time schedule for the action, and finally, who or which agency will take responsibility if the target is missed?" said Zhou in Shanghai. "I wish for change for the better and quantitative improvement within the year."

Zhou acknowledges she has plenty to worry about - her children's education, supporting her parents and in-laws, and accessible health care - but none as urgent as bad air quality.

"The impact of bad air, especially PM 2.5, is severe and I worry for my parents and baby. I worry for my husband and I because we are the breadwinners. If we are downed by illness and lose our source of income, who will provide for them?" said Zhou.

Xie Jianshe , a professor at Guangzhou University's School of Public Administration, said calls by families like Zhou's reflected their dissatisfaction, which has reached a pitch that officials can no longer ignore.

"The damage wrought by 30 years of growth-oriented development will take generations of efforts to mend, but the good thing is the current administration has realised that," Xie said.

"There will be reform measures issued after the annual sessions, not only on the economic and political fronts, but things that affect the ordinary citizens every day."

Some more affluent families have registered their discontent - and hopelessness about the prospect of political change - by emigrating.

An immigration report by the Centre for China and Globalisation, a think tank, has shown that 148,000 Chinese obtained permanent residence in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - the four traditionally most popular destinations - in 2012. Many were concerned about polluted air and water and the problem of food safety.

Environment and medical concerns have become one of the main reasons to leave - and 70 per cent said it was their major motivation for emigrating.

Watch: Chinese weather officials: 15 per cent of China blanketed in heavy smog