Pollution in China: apocalyptic skies and public outrage

Pollution in China: apocalyptic skies and public outrage

The term “APEC blue” is a neologism reflecting the resignation and indignation of the average citizen, mixed with the keen sense of humour in China. It emerged during an APEC summit in 2014, during which spectacular skies and the best air quality indicators possible were achieved after having brought Beijing to a standstill for days. The rest of the time, it is pollution grey.

(José A. Díaz)

A clear day in the big cities of China, with blue skies and white clouds, a day when nearby buildings can be clearly made out, has a name: it is an ‘APEC blue’ day. The inhabitants of mega cities across Asia’s economic giant – accustomed to grey skies, constant haze and blurred outlines – coined this term a couple years ago to refer to the unusual phenomenon of having a good day without critical levels of pollution.

The people of China have spent decades tolerating the deterioration of their environment. It is seen as a punitive toll fee on the country’s road to impressive economic development. But now that it is the world’s second largest economy, the biggest exporter, and with its ever larger and increasingly affluent middle class, the effects of pollution in China have become one of the public’s top concerns.

According to various studies, there are hundreds of thousands of pollution-related deaths in China. The figure could be as high as 1.6 million a year according to a scientific paper published by Berkeley Earth (based on data showing that, during the period studied, 92 per cent of the population in China experienced over 120 hours of unhealthy air and 38 per cent experienced average concentrations that were unhealthy).

Another study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), published last month, forecasts that the premature death rates will be three times higher in 2060 than in 2010.

“When we speak about pollution in China, you have to understand that it is very different from that experienced nowadays in the big European cities like London or Paris, for example,” says air pollution expert Louie Cheng. He is the president and founder of the PureLiving consulting firm, which specialises in the design of systems that monitor and clean indoor air, a sector where demand has soared in recent years.

The smaller atmospheric particulate matter per cubic metre, PM2.5, is the most harmful, as the particles are able to penetrate the respiratory system more deeply and can cause cardiovascular disease, lung diseases and lung cancer. “They are usually produced and emitted into the air by the combustion of other elements, and in China the majority come from coal-fired power plants,” points out Cheng, “although added to this is heavy industry, such as the iron and steel industry and cement factories, which consume huge amounts of energy and are major generators of polluting emissions”. This is on top of the hundreds of millions of vehicles across China’s cities and towns.

PM2.5 particles enter the bloodstream and lead to rises in blood pressure and respiratory ailments, including asthma attacks. The particles also weaken the immune system, placing it under ‘permanent stress’, with a continual almost allergic reaction, amounting to a veritable war of attrition on the human organism.

“The pollution scares me. It’s impossible not to worry about such an important problem, especially when you have small children,” Hu, a young woman from Shanghai, with a three-year-old child, tells Equal Times.

“My daughter has a good genetic make-up, like me, and we cope with it quite well, but there are many of her friends at school who spend the day coughing, you can tell that they are weaker and it affects them more. I know that in the long term it has serious health implications, and of course that worries me. I see the same amongst my work colleagues. It’s not unusual for some of them to have regular coughing fits, and one of them, who coughs the most, complains that he always feels like he has an allergy, with dry and irritated skin. I myself suffer from headaches when the pollution is particularly bad, I may not cough, but I do feel tired all the time,” she explains.

The invisible danger

According to a Greenpeace report based on official Chinese data from 2015, the concentration of PM2.5 particles in suspension per cubic metre fell, in 2015, by an average of 10.3 per cent in comparison to the previous year in 189 Chinese cities. The levels also fell in most of the provinces. They still, however, all had concentrations above the annual average of 10 μg/m3 recommended by the WHO and, in the worst cases, exceeded 80 μg/m3. Only six out of 31 provinces met the national standard of 35 μg/m3.

The social tipping point came in Beijing when, despite the reduction in the annual concentration of particles, two pollution red alerts were issued in December 2015, in accordance with China’s already lax air quality standards, leading to exceptional measures to reduce pollution levels, which had reached almost seven times the maximum recommended by the WHO within a period of 24 hours.

It is during emergency periods like these that the social networks rail against the authorities, partly because of their inability to avoid sporadic crises but also because of their half-hearted approach to addressing such a fundamental public health issue.

The Chinese government is faced with the dilemma of maintaining the growth needed to preserve the social equilibrium or taking urgent measures to alleviate the problem before the tension it creates spirals out of control.

The slight improvements of recent years seem to be heading in the right direction, but the problem continues to reach alarming proportions and has by no means been resolved, as a Greenpeace China spokesperson pointed out to Equal Times. The authorities seem to have started to address the problem by attacking the main polluters (coal burning and heavy industry, which Beijing is trying to move away from urban areas and replace with alternative energy sources, as well as modernising and cleaning up its industrial fabric and redirecting its economy towards technology and services). But it is public opinion that seems to be the real driver of the changes.

“People are increasingly conscious of the health problems caused by pollution, and until that was acknowledged it was very difficult improve matters,” explains Cheng, who compares China’s situation with that of India, where public awareness about the problem, although equally drastic, is much lower than in the People’s Republic.

“It is a problem most of the people think about,” Hao Lizhao, commercial director of a technology firm, tells Equal Times. “The residual waters, the gases and the smoke caused by combustion can be dangerous, but I think measures can be taken. There are measures and solutions, but it is a matter of seeing whether or not you are ready to act on them. I don’t think it can be done by one person alone, we all have to do it, and if we do we can still be alright,” he added.

In 2014, China - the world’s biggest polluter - already included the fight against pollution in its list of priorities, although in terms of international commitments it has always defended the historical responsibility of polluting nations based on its own short history as a polluting country (since the eighties).

But last December, it committed for the first time, at the Paris Climate Summit, to cut its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by between 60 and 65 per cent relative to 2005 levels by 2030. By the middle of last year, the level was already 33.8 per cent lower than in 2005, according to the climate change department of China’s National Reform and Development Commission (the country’s top economic planning body).

In addition, the five-year economic plan for 2016-2020, approved by this state commission in March, has set the goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 18 per cent over this period.

Social outrage and millionaires packing their bags

Meanwhile, the authorities’ reaction to the problem varies according to the circumstances, ranging from open coverage of the issue in state media to the censorship of delicate information.

Just over a year ago, the famous TV presenter Chai Jing released a documentary about pollution in China, based on several years of personal research. Although the authorities initially reacted well to it, the video was regarded with growing awkwardness as the number of visits to the country’s most popular video site, Youku, soared. A few days later, when the number of views had already surpassed 150 million, access to the video was blocked on government orders and all information about Chai Jing and her work was prohibited.

The outrage amongst the urban population grew. At the same time, the luxury of taking drastic measures is limited to a small elite. According to a 2015 white paper on investment and emigration from China, drawn up by the business magazine Hurun, the main reasons for emigration among China’s millionaires are the quality of their children’s education (22 per cent), pollution (20 per cent) and food safety (18 per cent – another major concern in China).

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia are their favourite destinations, closely followed by Singapore and Germany. Even Jack Ma, one of the most charismatic business leaders in China, owner of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, had to deny rumours he was planning to emigrate to Hong Kong a couple of years ago.

A young multinational bank employee in Shanghai, who preferred not to give her name, said she did not rule out pollution being a key reason for emigrating in the future. “I like to look after myself, to exercise and live a healthy life, but when the pollution (of PM2.5) is over 150 points (on a Chinese scale of 500, and which managed to climb to over 700 in the winter of 2013), I always wear a mask and try to go outside as little as possible.”

According to the Hurun Report Chinese Luxury Consumer Survey 2014, 64 per cent of Chinese millionaires have already emigrated or were in the process of doing so. Meanwhile, the rest of the people in China will have to keep waiting for the situation to improve and making the most of the rare ‘APEC blue’ days. The terms reflects the resignation and indignation of the average citizen, mixed with a dash of Chinese humour, which emerged during an APEC summit in 2014, when spectacular skies and the best air quality indicators possible were achieved in Beijing.

The factories halted production, the capital’s residents were given holidays, and even the schools were closed, to avoid traffic jams. Once the world leaders left, activities were resumed and the shroud of pollution once again eclipsed Beijing. It was not the first time this had happened. The capital is routinely “cleaned up” for big events such as National Day or international visits.∑The rest of the time, the sky is ‘Pollution grey’.

This article has been translated from Spanish.