After "Under the Dome": Can China solve its air pollution crisis?

Somewhere in there is the city of Lianyungang. Image: Gety.

When it comes to air pollution, the government of China is currently standing on an ever-eroding precipice. On one side is a growing citizens movement, that is demanding clearer skies and a healthier environment; on the other are deeply instilled industrial, economic, and political patterns that cannot be rapidly revamped.

Before it was removed from the Chinese internet one week after it went live, Chai Jing’s Under the Dome documentary showed more than one third of the country’s 600m internet users the effect that air pollution is having on their health and how their country’s industries and government are complicit in its apocalyptic proliferation.

China does in fact have a range of environmental protection policies. But a recurring theme of the film was that they are often subverted by industries, intentionally overlooked by government officials, and are ultimately unenforceable by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). “We don’t have any teeth,” was how one MEP agent put it.

Under the Dome didn’t necessarily call for new environmental policies, but simply pushed for the proper enforcement of those which are already established. In other words, it argued that Chinese companies and government officials should be below the law – a similar agenda to that being pursued by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. To drive that point home, Chai showed estimates of how much less China’s air would be polluted, if only the country’s current emissions laws were obeyed.

Under the Dome got people talking across all sectors of the society, and a huge portion of the population realized that they were all saying the same thing. Before discussion of the film was purged online, the social network Sina Weibo alone contained over 280m posts on the subject.

“All of my friends are talking about the documentary,” said Ryan Lee, a musician from Shandong. “Everybody says they didn’t know the situation was serious to such a degree.”

A tourist wears a face mask in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Image: AFP.

After a series of colossal air pollution incidents, colloquially dubbed “airpocalypses”, in which cities more than a thousand miles apart were concurrently choked to a virtual standstill by the same blanket of smog, the Chinese government took its monumental first step towards improving air quality: it admitted that there was a problem.

Until then, they’d made a succession of denials and excuses for the haze, from it being fog to it being caused by farmers burning crops. The state run newspapers didn’t call the haze pollution, and even those living in extremely polluted regions often didn’t realise that the opaque atmosphere that surrounded them was anything to worry about. Few even found any reason to talk about it.

“When I was in high school, no one talked about air pollution,” said Diao Yanli, a teacher who grew up in an extremely polluted part of the Yantze River Delta. “People are more concerned about it now.”

Today, everybody knows exactly why they can’t see the blue sky above, and Under the Dome put a large swatch of the Chinese population on the same page about the issue. The film substituted the random scraps of knowledge that people tended to have about air pollution into a coherent body of information, outlining not only why and how their country has become so polluted, but offering directives on what ordinary citizens can do about it – namely, drive less and report the abuses of environmental laws they see.

This has caused many people in China to look in a single direction for a resolution to the haze: to the state. “I blame the government because the government controls most of the departments that are related to environment [and] who take charge of most of the factories and commercial organisations,” a young women from Ordos told me.

Having acknowledged the problem, the government automatically became responsible for fixing it. Premier Li Keqiang recently told the National People’s Congress that, “Environmental pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts. We must fight it with all our might.” The mayor of Beijing described his own city as being “unliveable”. And the president himself, Xi Jinping, declared that he was going to punish “with an iron hand” anyone who dared damage the environment, “with no exceptions”.

There’s a very close relationship between government decision makers and polluting industries: often, they are one and the same. China also features widespread corruption, and political fissures within the party itself.

For all those reasons, direct fiat has so far proved to be an ineffective strategy in China’s pursuit of cleaner air. This isn’t just a matter of industrial avarice: China’s big polluting industries employ millions of workers, and are the economic foundations of entire provinces. The proverbial switch on these industries can’t just be flipped off.

Mostly, China seems to be trying to ween itself of its biggest sources of pollution gradually. It’s providing massive subsidies and creating a more conducive environment for renewable energy production, as well as less polluting forms of transportation and green urban design.

In 2013 China invested $68bn into the renewable energy industry; last year it was $89bn. In less than a decade China has become a global leader in solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, producing more GW of renewable energy than the total power output of every other country in the world except the USA.

Nearly 300 new eco-cities are also currently under construction or are in the planning stages across China. While building hundreds of new cities may seem to be the least ecological thing a country can do, China’s eco-cities can be seen as testing grounds for a new kind of urbanism. They’ll allow green engineering designs and clean energy gadgetry — like seasonal energy storage — to be put into practice on a large scale.

Cyclists wear face masks in Beijing. Image: Getty.

Nonetheless, China’s dependence on coal is not yet hovering in the rear view mirror. Although the country will continue developing its renewable energy industries it will likewise continue expanding its use of coal, and are in the works to double total energy capacity by 2030.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), China is to add 363 new coal fired power plants, and increase coal energy capacity by 75 per cent, over the coming decades. By 2050 China’s coal usage is expected to drop to 30-50 per cent of its total energy supply – but that’s still an incredible amount of coal being burned. Coal, and the pollution associated with it, are going to be a part of the Chinese condition for a long time yet.

Right now, there is an ever-growing push by the Chinese public for cleaner air – and now the government has acknowledged the scale of the problem, it’ll be looked upon to produce results to match its rhetoric. Unlike other issues, the government cannot hide air pollution; the public can not only see it, but can monitor it, too, with apps and websites that show an up-to-the minute air quality index.

The question facing the Communist Party is how it can balance public opinion, governmental fissures, industrial profit motives, and the stability of the domestic economy. An unrequited commitment to improving air quality at this point could backfire and make the Party look inept and weak – exactly how an authoritarian regime cannot afford to look, if it easy to retain the legitimacy to continue ruling. 

“If things get worse and our government still does nothing, I'm not sure what will happen,” a woman from Jiangsu province told me. “It's not like anything else. It's survival.”

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”