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A woman wears a mask as she crosses a bridge in Tianjin on Monday. Photo: Reuters

‘Airpocalypse’ dirties credibility of Chinese government

Pollution that shrouds half a billion people may go from environmental concern to public policy crisis

China’s latest “airpocalypse”, in which severe smog is affecting half a billion people, could move from an environmental concern to a public policy crisis if Beijing fails to clean up its air, analysts warn.

The Chinese government,which has failed on promises to clear the air while accusing the US Embassy of focusing on the capital city’s pollution, is seeing its credibility dirtied as smog covered one-seventh of the country’s territory this week, including Beijing.

Hundreds of flights were grounded, schools suspended classes, private cars were banned from city roads, highways were closed and hospitals were jammed with patients suffering from a level of air pollution that, in many places, exceeded the limit of air quality monitoring devices.

A red alert on air pollution in Beijing – the highest level of the country’s four-tier system – was forecast to be lifted at midnight on Thursday as an incoming cold front was expected to disperse the smog.

While many residents joke about the pollution on social media, an increasing number of people are also questioning the country’s air quality governance, and lawyers have filed suits against the governments of Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin.

“I am demanding the government pay me 9,999 yuan (US$1,440) in damages,” said Cheng Hai, a lawyer with the Beijing Wutian Law Firm who is suing the Hebei provincial government. “My key idea is that the court will find the government guilty of negligence of its duty over air pollution control ... the government cares about nothing but economic development.”

Lawsuits have also been filed against local governments in Beijing and Tianjin, Cheng said, explaining that his health has suffered for many years from breathing bad air.

“If our lawsuits don’t proceed at intermediate level courts, we will appeal to higher level courts,” he said.

A motorcyclist rides along a street in Liaocheng, Shandong province, on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

The persistent smog problem in northern China is particularly embarrassing for the country’s leaders, as President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said China is cleaning up its old and polluting development mode and now cherishes blue sky and clean water as much as economic prosperity.

“The central government has seen the importance of the environment for social stability and it has listed environmental governance as a key strategic area,” said Zhu Lijia, a professor of public policy at the Chinese Academy of Governance. “But the central government’s wish is not being implemented – local government officials’ performance is still measured largely by GDP”.

China has managed public policy crises before, including a cover-up of a SARS virus epidemic in 2003, shoddy school buildings in that resulted in lost lives in an earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 and a milk formula scandal in 2008 when six babies died and nearly 40,000 were hospitalised due to products tainted with melamine.

However, the smog problem affects far more people than any previous public crisis.

Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said China’s smog is a symbol of the country’s “irresponsible bureaucratic apparatus”, which is blind to reality and deaf to public opinion.

“Cadres are trained to pursue economic growth, and they don’t really care about smog,” Hu said. “In fact, they are trying very hard to silence people’s voices over smog.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Pollution could be policy risk for Beijing