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".