Beijing should heed growing public anger at China’s filthy air

Cary Huang says the government must begin to see the problem as urgent and – as research has shown – more deadly than a natural disaster, and act to curb it

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 2:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 7:21pm

China ushered in the new year with a large part of its northern and central regions shrouded in thick smog.

Air pollution readings by the Beijing-based World Air Quality Index – which measures only PM 2.5, the tiny, toxic particles that damage lung tissue – were many times above 25 micrograms per cubic metre, a level considered safe by the World Health Organisation. In the first week of the new year, readings in more than 200 cities surpassed 200, with some exceeding 400.

The government declared a “war on pollution” two decades ago but the latest development showed it is losing the fight.

Beijing needs to declare war on smog and learn from other countries’ efforts

In recent years, credible research at home and abroad has provided scientific evidence that proves air pollution is deadly and in fact more harmful to health than a major natural disaster.

A recent study by Nanjing University’s School of the Environment suggests that smog is related to nearly one-third of deaths in China, putting it on a par with smoking as a threat to health. Some 31.8 per cent of 3.03 million deaths in 2013 in 74 cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta were thought to be linked to PM 2.5 pollution.

In 2015, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, estimated that smog led to 1.4 million premature deaths per year in China, while the California-based non-profit group Berkeley Earth reported an even higher figure, 1.6 million. Yet more research, this time by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tsinghua University and Peking University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concluded in 2013 that hazardous air had cut life expectancy by an average of 5.5 years in northern China.

Watch: Beijing choked by smog in the first days of 2017

These figures make air pollution more deadly than any major disaster in recent memory. In comparison, for instance, the “once-in-a-century earthquake” in Wenchuan (汶川), Sichuan (四川) in 2008 killed over 80,000 people; the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome resulted in 774 deaths in China and 36 other countries; and the 2015 cruise ship capsize in the Yangtze River, the worst maritime disaster in the country’s history in peace time, killed 440 people.

The government generally does a good job in its swift response to major disasters, convening top-level Politburo and State Council meetings immediately to coordinate the rescue work. In addition, the top decision-making Politburo holds about two dozen meetings every year, to discuss issues ranging from the economy to social control, but none to date focuses on pollution.

This reflects the lack of political will to tackle the problem. There appears to be little incentive for officials to act, as the smog problem does not seem as urgent as natural disasters.

Officials must be fully committed to clearing the air

It’s a shame because the government has shown itself capable of tackling pollution when it wanted to, launching short-term fixes ahead of politically significant events, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in 2014 which China hosted.

How China’s quick blue-sky fixes make pollution worse

Of course, strong resistance from vested interest groups that benefit from the emissions – most of them state-owned giants in the power, coal, steel and car manufacturing industries – is also to blame.

Public anger is growing, however, as more and more people become aware of the harm of toxic air. If the government continues to allow this filthy air to poison the people, then the haze will become politically poisonous, too, and inflict pain on the ruling government.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post