China's Battle Against Smog Patchy Amid Clearer Skies in Beijing

china-shanghai-pollution-feb8-2015.jpg Smog hangs over Shanghai, Feb. 8, 2015.

While emergency government measures appear to be having some effect on the country's "airpocalypse" smog problem in Beijing, the most harmful kind of pollution is actually on the rise in many other cities, as critics hit out at the ruling Chinese Communist Party for focusing on the lesser causes of pollution.

Overall, air pollution monitored by Greenpeace fell by 12 percent compared with the same period last year following emergency government action, the group said in a statement on its website.

But nearly 80 percent of the 376 cities monitored by Greenpeace East Asia still have air pollution at hazardous levels, exceeding both national and international standards, it said.

Levels of PM2.5 particulates, which are very harmful to human health, are still high in industrial regions surrounding Beijing, although air in the capital received a temporary clean-up during September's military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the group said.

The central provinces of Hunan and Hubei, the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, and the northwestern region of Xinjiang all ranked in the top 10 most polluted provinces, Greenpeace reported.

Henan's provincial capital Zhengzhou was the second dirtiest in China after seeing a spike in air pollution of more than 21 percent during the past 12 months, it said.

However, smog in Beijing is declining faster than smog elsewhere in country, with PM2.5 levels down 15 percent compared with the same period last year.

Temporary relief

In the two weeks around the People's Liberation Army military parade, Beijing enjoyed air quality that met national air quality standards for the first time ever, after the government switched off coal and industrial plants in the region and cut car use in the city, Greenpeace said.

The phenomenon of clean skies around major prestigious events is the butt of frequent Internet humor, with the recent clear skies dubbed "Parade Blue."

Negative media coverage of Beijing's smog, with its characteristic photos of dirty grey skies, blurred buildings, and people in face masks has driven the improvement, Greenpeace said, while Shanghai, which has had fewer problems with pollution, has become slightly more polluted than it was last year.

This week, authorities in Henan province banned stubble-burning for two weeks in a bid to clear the autumn skies, amid threats of immediate detention for anyone flouting the ban.

But environmental activist Wu Lihong said stubble-burning is something of a red herring when it comes to the main contributors to China's smog problem.

"Of course there is some damage done by stubble-burning ... but they used to burn stubble in the fields when I was a kid, and we didn't have the smog problem then," Wu said.

"Back then, we didn't have so much industry, chemical plants, iron and steel plants, or coal-burning industries, and there weren't [so many] cars, either. It was all bikes," he said.

Vested interests

Wu said a tangle of vested interests between polluting enterprises and local officials have made pollution an intractable problem in China.

"The authorities are making a huge publicity campaign blaming ordinary people for causing pollution with their stubble-burning, but why aren't they closing down the polluting factories?" he asked.

"It's because the officials in lower levels of government all rely on those polluting industries for an income," Wu said.

"So the government makes a big deal of going after small-time polluters from time to time, just to direct people's attention on to less important factors and away from the more important ones."

Wu said much of China's official pollution data is highly suspect, and is subject to manipulation by local officials who stand to lose their chance of promotion if the statistics look bad in their area.

Chinese netizens appeared to agree.

"We have no stubble-burning in Shenzhen, so why do we have smog," one social media user wrote, while another added: "Of course, they have to deal with problems using violence and fines, but we don't see anyone going after the polluting enterprises."

A third netizen commented, in an apparent reference to August's chemical blasts in the northern city of Tianjin: "They say barbecues and stubble-burning create air pollution, but when ... a hazardous chemicals warehouse explodes and burns for three days straight, they swear blind that no air pollution was created as a result."

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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