China Punishes Polluters as Toxic Smog Swamps Northern Cities

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Beijing residents protest pollution at the start of 2017.
Beijing residents protest pollution at the start of 2017.
Photo sent by an RFA listener

China entered 2017 with toxic smog still choking cities in the north and center of the country, in spite of anti-pollution measures that included punishments for offenders.

China's environmental protection ministry announced it had punished more than 500 enterprises and construction sites and 10,000 vehicles for breaching air pollution alert restrictions.

Yellow, orange, or red pollution alerts are currently in place in 72 cities in northern China, official media reported.

Red alerts automatically trigger bans on heavily polluting vehicles, and trucks carrying construction waste are banned from roads, while some factories are required to cut production.

But inspectors sent by the ministry found that several metallurgy, agricultural chemical, and steel plants in the region had failed to follow the alert-triggered bans, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Meanwhile, the ministry also rapped the government of industry-heavy Tangshan city in Hebei province with a warning for failing to implement a truck ban during the smog alert.

And an unlicensed quarry in the city continued in production even after one of its officers was detained for breaching anti-pollution bans, it said.

An employee who answered the phone at the ministry declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Tuesday.

"If you know of any companies that are in breach of the pollution bans linked to the smog warnings, you are welcome to report them," the official said.

"You can do this via our environmental reporting center."

Set to continue

The smog looks set to continue through Jan. 7, according to China's meteorological bureau.

Beijing resident Sun Baomei said people's lives are severely disrupted by the smog.

"Beijing is no longer fit for human habitation," Sun said. "We are breathing in toxic stuff, and some days we don't even dare go out."

"If we do go out, we wear a face-mask. We all have those poison-gas masks, and if we drive the car it's very difficult to see anything," she said.

"It's easy to get in a traffic accident if you take your eye of the road for a second, so nobody wants to go out."

The ruling Chinese Communist Party at the end of last year announced a five-year action plan on air pollution that aims to slash the country's reliance on coal and shutter polluting enterprises.

Beijing also removed limits on the amounts polluters can be forced to pay in fines.

However, campaigners say that China already has an exemplary set of environmental protection laws, but that close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level.

Radical change needed

Song Xinzhou, founder of the Beijing-based non-government group "Green Beijing," said emergency measures can have only a limited impact on reducing the smog that engulfs northern Chinese cities in winter.

"We need to initiate radical change. Until we take into account the wider environment and start to get actual results from the anti-pollution measures, things aren't going to change," Song said.

He said the cold weather had led to a lack of movement in the air over northern China.

"That's making it hard for the pollutants to disperse," Song said. "There's a fairly stable layer of air here right now, which is a normal phenomenon caused by the weather."

"But so many years of pollution mean that this natural phenomenon is now a very negative outcome."

Online commentators hit out at the smog, taking aim at the government for failing to issue the highest alert levels.

"Why don't they issue a red alert?" wrote one commentator. "Do they think it would put a dampener on the first day of the new year?"

Another quipped: "They should give the smog a Beijing residency permit, because it's not going anywhere."

Others pointed out that tourists attending the first flag-raising ceremony of 2017 on Beijing's Tiananmen Square were all wearing gas-masks, according to photos circulated on social media.

Everyone affected

A Beijing petitioner who gave only his surname Li said everyone he knows is affected by the pollution.

"If we can avoid going anywhere, or meeting up with people, we do," Li said. "The smog is here, both the environmental kind and the political kind."

"If we can't put up with this darkness, this pollution, then we shouldn't leave it for future generations to put up with as well," Li said.

Thousands of Beijing residents have left the city to head to southern China in a bid to get away from the toxic cloud over their homes, local media reported.

Some congregated on the summit of Sichuan's sacred Buddhist mountain, Emeishan, to witness the first ray of clear light they had seen all year.

"The smog doesn't extend everywhere, but there is air pollution nearly everywhere now, and it keeps getting worse," a Beijing resident surnamed Hu told RFA.

"This problem has been created by undisciplined actions on the part of the government," he said. "The only justice now is that nobody can escape."

But he said: "If we don't all stand up and do something about this now, there won't be any survivors."

Despite a strong push to improve air quality, China's citizens will suffer over 2 million premature deaths annually due to pollution for decades to come, according to a July report from the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA).

Bad air has shortened the average life expectancy in China by over two years, it said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution causes at least 6.5 million premature deaths a year worldwide.

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lee Lai for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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