Political Clouds Darken over China Smog

An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
2014-03-03
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A Chinese policeman directs traffic amid pollution smog in Beijing, March 3, 2014.
A Chinese policeman directs traffic amid pollution smog in Beijing, March 3, 2014.
Eyepress News

China's air pollution crisis is exposing political strains with public calls for officials to enforce environmental rules.

In an unusually public complaint, state media openly blasted city authorities in China's capital Beijing for failing to limit traffic and take other restrictive steps during "hazardous" periods of smog.

"Beijing municipal government, don't pretend to be blind in the fog," said China Central Television (CCTV) in a social media message, cited by the official Xinhua news agency and the ruling Chinese Communist Party-affiliated paper Global Times on Feb. 16.

According to the report, the air quality index (AQI) at city monitoring stations hit the hazardous Level 6 range on that date after three days of stifling conditions.

The CCTV messages posted on the Weibo.com website implied that city officials should have declared a "red" alert and taken emergency measures under Beijing's four-tiered system of color codes for pollution response.

"The government should not shun its responsibility or turn a blind eye to the smog," CCTV said.

The rare criticism of an official authority by state-controlled media came four days after the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences released a report, evaluating Beijing's environment as "almost unfavorable for human living."

Online references to that study, initially relayed by the official English-language China Daily, were deleted by Internet censors in China, Radio Free Asia reported.

Color code system

The CCTV complaints suggested more complex forces at work as the central government tried to deal with public anger and deflect blame for worsening smog.

Last October, Beijing implemented the color code system that called for special measures including factory shutdowns and traffic bans based on odd-even license plate numbers during the highest pollution levels.

But the Beijing municipal government "has not initiated the emergency response once since the program came into effect," Xinhua reported.

On Feb. 20, city officials appeared to take heed of the criticism, issuing a "yellow" alert for the first time and later upgrading the warning to the second-highest level of "orange."

Over 100 factories were told to limit or stop production, Xinhua reported. Beijing authorities ordered Communist Party and political institutions to reduce vehicle use, according to China Daily, but stopped short of imposing traffic curbs through license plate numbers.

The city lifted the orange alert on Feb. 27 as a cold front cleared the air, capping one of the worst weeks of pollution in recent memory. Smog returned to the capital on Monday after a brief break over the weekend, Xinhua reported.

Growing tension

Daniel Gardner, a China scholar and history professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, said the open criticism from official media reflects growing tension over the smog crisis.

"The central government is altogether frustrated with local officials because, I think, the central government is desperately committed to addressing pollution problems," Gardner said in an interview.

In early September, Beijing unveiled a five-year "action plan," pledging to remove 25 percent of the smallest smog-forming particles from the air by 2017.

Ten days later, the central government rolled out its own "airborne pollution prevention and control action plan," setting out five-year goals for China's 338 cities.

Beijing's program was widely seen as the toughest because it pledged to close all coal-fired power plants in the city by 2017, shut small polluting factories and cut emissions from major industries by 30 percent.

But citizens in the capital have felt little relief so far, with prolonged bouts of dense pollution since the plans were announced.

It may be too soon expect results from a five-year plan, but choking conditions during the recent Lunar New Year holiday suggest that officials were reluctant to impose traffic restrictions that were promised as a response.

The Xinhua report also blamed local authorities for failing to ban fireworks during the Lantern Festival on Feb. 14, despite AQI readings of more than 12 times the World Health Organization limit for "significant health impacts."

Public pressure

State news outlets seem to have seized on the episode to vent public pressure over pollution, while making it clear where responsibility for enforcement lies.

"The central government wants to show that it's responsive, but it really doesn't have the wherewithal to control these municipal governments," Gardner said.

In a recent interview with the National Bureau of Asian Research, Gardner noted that China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has only about 300 employees, compared with over 17,000 at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The weakness of enforcement at the central government level reflects the strength of economic development interests, he said.

Central government plans to cut industrial overcapacity and close inefficient production lines in smokestack industries like steel have met with similar resistance.

"Enforcement of rules has been patchy at the local level, where authorities often rely on taxes paid by polluting industries," Gardner said a recent Reuters report.

But finger-pointing at local authorities is also problematic, since measures like driving bans and factory shutdowns are equally likely to generate complaints.

"The Beijing municipal government doesn't want to alienate its own people," Gardner said.

Middle class awareness

The conflict over enforcement may be camouflaging a more serious problem for improving air quality, since complaints on social media are likely to be coming from the rising middle class, which is both environmentally aware and sensitive to loss of privileges like driving.

"They are also the ones driving the cars," said Gardner. "Do they want to make the concessions individually that are necessary to clean up the air?"

The conflicts and contradictions have been illustrated by a citizen lawsuit against the local government in Shijiazhuang, the heavily-polluted capital of northern Hebei province.

Among other things, resident Li Guixing filed the suit to protest an emergency driving ban as unfair, Xinhua reported.

"I want to show every citizen through my action that we are the victims of pollution," Li was quoted as saying. "We are affected physically and economically, and we shouldn't be the ones to pay for all this."

Shift to greener growth

In one sense, tackling the smog crisis is consistent with the central government's broad long-range plan to shift the basis of China's economy away from smokestack industries toward more sustainable and greener growth, the service sector and consumption.

"The question is how quickly can you do that without stalling the economy, which, after all, is the basis of the Party's legitimacy," Gardner said.

Having lifted millions out of poverty and paved the way for a rising middle class, the Communist Party leadership now faces the challenge of the pollution that the progress has caused.

China's leaders are now worrying that dissatisfaction with urban pollution among the middle class has become a threat to the system.

"Even if they don't take to the streets, they're beginning to talk about quality of life versus economic prosperity. Can we really provide them with that quality of life?" Gardner said.

China's official press highlighted air quality as a top issue for this week's annual legislative sessions in Beijing after President Xi Jinping toured a city neighborhood in a publicized event on Feb. 25.

"Tackling air pollution is the most urgent task for officials. It has become a key criteria for how they are judged, and the absence of progress over time could spell the end of their career," a Xinhua commentary said.

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