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China’s toxic soup

China’s toxic soup
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG – When residents of this city – now a special administrative region of China – complain about rising levels of air pollution that sometimes shroud its world-famous skyline in a murky pall of gray, they can cheer themselves with the thought: At least I don’t live in Beijing – the national capital.

This month, so far, has been particularly reassuring. Though Hong Kong’s pollution index has been high enough to warrant health warnings for those who suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, its residents have seen nothing like the vile muck that can be found in skies to the north.

Chinese officials were finally able to breathe a relatively clean sigh of relief last week when a fortuitous cold front swept through Beijing, lifting the embarrassing blanket of toxic smog that had
been choking the country’s capital for four consecutive days.

Air pollution levels were bad enough to cause the cancellation of nearly 700 flights in and out of the city and to send its population of 20 million on an unprecedented buying spree that turned surgical masks into a new fashion industry.

At one point, the rooftop pollution monitor at the US Embassy in Beijing jumped from a reading of “very unhealthy” to “beyond index”. When a city enters the fearsome realm of “beyond”, its citizens become unnerved and angry.

So that cold front, bone-chilling though it may be, brought welcome relief to the people and to the government – both municipal and central – that does its best to hide the country’s dire pollution problem, which is especially acute in Beijing, in the hope that its burgeoning middle class will be happy enough with China’s tremendous economic gains to accept the environmental and health consequences that go along with such breakneck growth.

But this cold front, too, will pass – and then, as anyone who has spent extended time in Beijing knows, the city’s skies will once again fill with a soupy poison that is clearly a health threat to the people who live and work there. In the end, what is your newfound wealth worth when the city in which you earned it is killing you?

Why is it that, even according to official data, the rate of lung cancer in Beijing has risen by nearly 60% since 2000 as the number of smokers has decreased? Shanghai is worse, by the way – with a 73% jump in lung cancer during that time – and the story is similar in other major Chinese cities.

If Chinese urbanites look long and hard enough, however, somewhere in that noxious cloud above and around them they may see at least a metaphorical silver lining: Pollution is now so bad in the capital that its people – distrustful of bureaucratic pledges to clean it up, not to mention the preposterously low official pollution readings that simply do not tally with the atmospheric gunk they see with their own eyes – are taking matters into their own hands. And they are starting to make a difference.

When government readings – based on an outdated monitoring system that counts only suspended particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter – cannot be trusted, Beijingers turn to the US Embassy, whose up-to-date equipment counts particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5). These baneful jots and specks, experts agree, comprise most of the city’s air pollution and are far more likely to cause damage to the lungs that can lead to cancer and serious respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Beyond the gross inaccuracies of Beijing’s monitoring system, city officials also choose to present a misleading average of pollution over the past 24 hours, whereas the more precise US Embassy readings are current and broadcast hourly via Twitter. These tweets have been a source of tension between embassy officials and Beijing bureaucrats, but many of the city’snetizens have come to rely on them as they plan their schedules for days, and even weeks, when the air they breathe may be harmful to their health.

While Twitter is blocked in mainland China, wily Beijingers use virtual private networks to circumvent the censors, and there is also a mobile phone app that accesses the embassy feed. And, once the bad news leaks out, it is quickly posted on SinaWeibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, for anyone with a computer or a smartphone to see and share.

Thus, on December 4, many residents were able to compare the embassy reading of 522 on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 500-point scale (and so “beyond index”) with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection’s assessment of air pollution as “light” that day. The bureau also described the city’s yellow haze, which reduced visibility to less than 500 meters, as innocuous fog, not deadly smog.

Such discrepancies hardly inspire confidence in local officials – who, by the way, do possess and employ state-of-the-art PM2.5 monitoring equipment. Beijing has 27 monitoring stations capable of measuring PM2.5 levels, but officials choose to keep their readings to themselves.

Perhaps they learned a lesson from the eastern city of Nanjing, which was quickly castigated last month by central authorities after publishing PM2.5 readings online.

To be fair, it should be noted that the central government’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has announced plans to set new pollution standards based on PM2.5 readings, but not until 2016, and some cities – for example, Shanghai, China’s financial capital – have pledged to adopt the new standards sooner than that.

Let’s also remember that the US only started measuring PM2.5 a decade ago and did not begin enforcing limits on small-particle emissions until 2006.

China’s 30-year economic boom has left many of its cities with pollution levels similar to those witnessed in Los Angeles and London 40 to 50 years ago. Beijing may not even be the worst case – but, because of its special status as the nation’s capital and cultural center, it is the most prominent and embarrassing.

Even the rich, powerful and well connected are fed up. One of the city’s biggest property developers, Pan Shiyi, used hisWeibo microblog, which has seven million followers, to launch a poll last month on whether Beijing should adopt stricter pollution standards. The results were predictable: 91% of the 42,118 followers who voted for wanting to see better standards put in place this year.

Since city officials have no plans to do this, however, some residents are literally taking matters into their own hands. Thanks to a local environmental group called Green Beagle – founded by journalist FengYongfeng – ordinary Beijingers are recording PM2.5 pollution levels using the group’s hand-held, locally made monitoring device.

Green Beagle volunteers measure pollution on the street, in offices, in supermarkets and in their own homes – and then post their readings on Green Beagle’s website.

At this point, Green Beagle possesses only one monitoring device, which it lends out for up to a week at a time to a growing contingent of volunteers. Despite the group’s meager resources, its postings, also woefully at odds with official readings, are adding to the pressure on authorities to act.

That was clear last week when state-run media – which generally used to live in the same state of denial as municipal officials in Beijing – joined the campaign for cleaner air.

Last Thursday, China Daily ran a story in which a Beijing-based expert on the environment made an unambiguous call for a tougher air-quality regime.

“Including PM2.5 readings is essential in figuring out the country’s haze problems,” said Ma Jun, director of the Public and Environmental Affairs Institute, “and it reflects the growing influence of public opinion regarding air quality.”

And this from an editorial in the usually see-no-evil Global Times: “Our pollution has become severe. It is time for us to shift our focus from development to protection.”

So far, however, local officials in Beijing are making no promises, even though – as the city was setting the stage to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games – they took action that proved convincingly that pollution levels could be dramatically reduced. Blue skies prevailed while the games were on; once they ended, it was back to business as usual.

Embarrassingly, this has left the US Embassy as the pollution authority in China’s capital city.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

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