From ‘apocalypse’ to blue skies: Beijing’s fight for clean air is rare victory for public dissent

Beijing was once known as one of the most polluted cities in the world, with thick smoke and an irritating air as the daily reality for its residents. Now, the sky is almost all blue, a sign that the capital of China is in a new era of clean air, said the country’s minister of Ecology and Environment last Wednesday (18th).

“’Beijing blue’ has gradually become our new normal,” said Huang Runqiu, the minister, according to the state tabloid Global Times, as the city recorded its best monthly air quality since the start of the time series in 2013 .

While Chinese cities have long led the global rankings for the worst air quality in the world, they have shown steady improvement over the years.

Beijing recorded just 10 days of heavy air pollution last year, Huang said – a drop of nearly 80% since 2015. Recent photos of the city show blue skies and summer sun, a rarity in the city of approximately 21 million people.

The turnaround in Beijing’s air quality illustrates the success of the country’s anti-pollution campaign since it began in 2013, the year of Beijing’s infamous “air-pocalypse” (mix of the words “air” and “apocalypse”), when the pollution became so strong that levels of PM2.5, a microscopic pollutant, reached 900 micrograms per square meter, 90 times higher than the daily level recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The air apocalypse attracted global media attention and pushed the subject into China’s mainstream – so much so that a local brewery even named a beer after it, promising discounts on wet days.

For years, pollution in the capital was euphemistically called “fog,” but now, armed with new information about the dangerous effects of poor air quality, residents were no longer willing to put up with days of difficult breathing.

“It wasn’t just Beijing’s irritating cough that was attacking residents on a daily basis – it was far worse,” said Daniel Gardner, professor emeritus at Smith College and author of “Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“When they coughed, it was a sign that they were ingesting particulate matter that leads to morbidity and mortality,” he added. “So I think people have now started to see this air quality very differently in 2013.”

Terms like PM2.5 soon became part of everyday vocabulary as people began to organize their lives around the various levels of pollution. And as public awareness increased, protests against coal plants began to erupt in cities like Kunming and Shenzhen.

At the time, the Global Times reported that public outrage was “hindering” the country’s economic growth, but, according to Gardner, the government had already begun to change its mindset.

Improved air quality in China served as a public relations boost for Xi Jinping
Improved air quality in China served as public relations boost for Xi Jinping / Andy Wong – 23.Aug.2021/AP

Political change to improve public image

Xi Jinping, who became president in March 2013, just two months after the air apocalypse, saw an opportunity.

By promising to clean up air pollution, he could win public support, improve China’s international image, draw back concerned foreign tourists and expatriate workers, and give himself a public relations boost all at once.

“The first crisis that comes to your table is the air apocalypse. It wasn’t just in Beijing, it was all over northern China and it made noise,” Gardner said. “2013 was an important attitudinal inflection point, where the government is now openly saying, we are leaving behind this ‘economic growth at all costs’ policy and moving in this new direction where there is harmony between economic growth… and environmental stewardship.”

Starting that year, the government invested billions of dollars in a national air pollution action plan. It launched new regulations, installed air monitoring stations across the country, and began closing coal mines and coal plants. In 2014, China had declared a “national war on pollution”.

At first, Beijing tolerated public protests because they were localized – focusing on specific power plants in protesters’ neighborhoods or on local authorities that had violated environmental regulations.

But that soon began to change as the protests took on a broader scope — fueled in part by “Under the Dome,” a 2015 documentary that criticized state-owned companies, corrupt officials and government ministries for their role in the quality crisis. air.

More than 200 million people watched the documentary in its first week, sparking a heated debate online before censors banned the work altogether.

“I think what the government was worried about is a movement going national,” Gardner said. “They saw people in Beijing, Kunming and Lanzhou, all over China, watching this same documentary and hearing the same message… I think the perception was that the target could grow and go beyond the place if it was allowed to continue. ”

While the Communist Party of China, led by Xi, tightened its grip on civil society and cracked down on social activism, police quickly ended environmental protests in Chengdu in 2016 and in Wuhan in 2019. Several other documentaries on environmental issues such as waste plastic, were also banned.

At the same time, Xi prided himself on China’s anti-pollution campaign, often closing factories and limiting the number of cars on the roads to ensure blue skies during key events like the 2014 Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit.

Despite the improvements, there’s still a long way to go – for example, those temporary blue skies often get lost in heavy pollution. And it’s hard to know whether improvements are being seen across the country or whether pollution is just migrating from Beijing to other places — especially with new plans introduced this year for dozens of coal-fired ovens and power plants.

Environmentalists must also be careful not to cross any political red lines, lest they anger the central government.

But from the once polluted Beijing, it’s clear that the combined efforts paid off – perhaps one of the few times in recent years that public outrage has successfully spurred Chinese authorities to act, even if those efforts were carefully managed and swiftly managed. deleted.

(Translated text; read the original in English)