Quick fixes, empty promises and breathtaking inaction: how China has responded to its smog problem

In less than a decade, air pollution has become a central feature of urban life and a flashpoint of public discontent. Here are some of the ways the government has reacted to the appalling conditions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 3:44pm

Dismissing use of masks during the ­ 2008 Olympics

In August, 2008 when four cyclists from the US Olympic team were spotted in Beijing wearing black masks, state media and government officials branded the act as an insult to China.

Du Shaozhong, the then spokesman for Beijing’s environmental protection bureau, said it was unnecessary to take masks to China. “[You] just added a bit of weight to your luggage. You won’t find it useful,” Du said.

Amid huge pressure from the Chinese public, the four athletes were forced to “write an apology” to the Beijing Olympics organising committee.

Attacking the US embassy for releasing air quality data

The US embassy in Beijing started to monitor air quality in 2008, using PM 2.5 particulates as an indicator. It later began releasing the data to the public before the concept was known on the mainlan.

The information attracted growing international and domestic attention, as the country’s air quality continued to worsen.

Interest hit a peak with a particularly bad reading in Beijing in late 2010.

The releases angered the central government, culminating on World Environment Day in June 2012 with the then vice-minister of environmental protection, Wu Xiaoqing, saying the US embassy’s data was “technically inaccurate” and the practise violated international law.

A few days later, foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the US embassy was not qualified to monitor air quality and was “irresponsible” in doing so.

The US embassy resisted the opposition and continued publishing air quality data.

Hundreds of flights cancelled in Beijing as thick smog lays siege to capital

Putting a size on an elephant too big to hide

As the smog has worsened, many urban residents have stocked up on air filters and started using mobile apps to track air quality data sourced from the US embassy.

Municipal authorities in Beijing began publishing their own PM2.5 data in January 2012, although the readings have often been lower than the US embassy’s figures.

In his annual work report in March 2013, then premier Wen Jiabao said the government would revise its air quality monitoring rules to measure PM2.5, officially recognising the problem for the first time.

For many mainlanders, checking PM2.5 levels has become as important as checking the daily temperature.

Promising quick fixes and to “chop off my head”

In September 2013, the State Council published a grand action plan, vowing to achieve “a noticeable improvement in air quality” in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei zone, and the Yangtze and Pearl river deltas within five years.

Local governments also made similar promises. In early 2014, Hebei forced municipal governments to promise that air quality would improve in three years and do so “significantly” in five years.

On Monday, levels of PM2.5 in the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang went past 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre. The World Health Organisation recommends an annual average of no more than 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

The Beijing municipal government earmarked 760 billion yuan (HK$850 billion) in 2014 to clean up the air. Then mayor Wang Anshun was widely quoted as saying Beijing would clear the air by 2017 or he would “chop my head off”. Wang resigned as Beijing’s mayor two months ago.

Many authorities opt for quick fixes if air quality turns really bad. In the latest red alert in the country’s north, private cars can only be driven on alternate days, children have been advised not to go to school, and some factories have been ordered to stop work.

Beijing’s ‘smog refugees’ flee the capital for cleaner air down south

Engineering politically correct blue skies

While the central government has had little success in curbing pollution across the country, its heavy-handed tactics – from shutting factories to stopping construction – have ensured blue skies for key political events, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in 2014 and the G20 leaders’ summit in Hangzhou this year.

But some mainland research suggests that these quick-fix blue skies are usually followed by a plunge in air quality – often worse than before.

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

Allowing jokes but no questioning or protests

The persistent smog has clouded public trust in government pledges.

Jokes about the pollution have mushroomed online but the government has censored serious questioning of public policy on the issue.

A documentary by former CCTV reporter Chai Jing was viewed millions of times online in early 2015, only to be pulled from websites.

Earlier this month, police in Chengdu stepped up security amid mounting public complaints about smog, after briefly taking away eight mask-wearing protesters for questioning. The demonstrators were artists staging a brief sit-in after a mass protest over the pollution planned for the weekend was snuffed out by police before it started.