A Clean Air Act For China?

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Remember a week or so ago when the air in Beijing was so polluted that it was ranked as "crazy bad"? Well, it's happening again for the fourth time in recent weeks. It's gotten so bad that a real estate tycoon has launched an online campaign for a Chinese clean air act. The World's Mary Kay Magistad is in Beijing, staying indoors. Are people in China talking about a turning point here, Mary Kay?

Mary Kay Magistad: Well, a lot of people think, you know, how much more of this can we take. It hasn't just been four times in the last three weeks, it's been almost the last three weeks. By international standards an air quality index of 300 or above is hazardous. There have been days where I've looked at the index and it's been 300, down from 700 or down from 500, and I've thought, oh, it's not such a bad day. And yes, a lot of people here are talking about it. The smog that's affecting China right now, it's not just Beijing. It's an area that's the size of Texas times two.

Werman: Wow.

Magistad: It's huge. And this is a significant issue that the Chinese government has been sort of kicking down the road as an issue that it has to deal with. And I think there's been such an outcry this month, there's a recognition that something needs to be done, and more quickly than perhaps had originally been planned.

Werman: How is it affecting people's health?

Magistad: Hospitals are seeing more people come in with respiratory problems. Those that were prone to asthma are getting asthma attacks. You know, one of the things that's behind this as a long term problem, is that the current economic model is, we're going to continue to promote urbanization. We're going to continue to build more buildings. We're going to build more roads. All that takes cement, it takes steel, it takes building materials. You need factories to produce those materials. Those factories need coal, and coal is responsible for a lot of the pollutants that are in the air.

Werman: You know, I read there's even an online campaign, we mentioned it earlier, for a China clean air act by a real estate tycoon and Internet blogger, Pan Shiyi, and it's said to be getting millions of followers, so it seems some people in China, many people, recognize the pitfalls of this non-stop growth.

Magistad: Absolutely. I mean, this is air everyone is breathing. These are concerns that people have about the health of their children, of themselves, of their elderly parents, and about the future of China and what the air is going to be like to breathe 20, 30 years from now. Interestingly, there actually is already something like a clean air act, or a movement toward it, by the government itself. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has come out with a new five-year plan on how to control atmosphere pollution, and there's an amendment to an existing law that has been languishing for three years, but if it were to be passed, it calls for use of clean coal, and for coal scrubbers to be used and for various other steps that would help reduce emissions across the board. The problem is many factories, many managers, many heads of industrial companies don't really want to have to do that because it costs money and it will eat into their profits. As long as they have political connections and they've got the ear of decision makers, and the decision makers buy their argument that it's more important for China's economy to grow fast now than to worry about the long-term effects on the environment, it's going to be tough to get these sorts of clean air measures passed through and implemented in a way that's going to make a real difference.

Werman: Right. You know, it's funny, not funny ha-ha, but even the pollution triggers the profiteering impulse in China, it seems. I gather that some people are doing a brisk business selling face masks, and there's even a guy who's selling cans of clean air?

Magistad: Right. This is a rather self-promoting businessman, a very wealthy businessman, who's doing this to make a point. So it's cans of clean air that are about the size of a Coke can that he's labeled the air with sort of different regions of China, the clean air of Tibet, or the clean air of southwestern Yunnan in the mountains, or whatever. It's a joke, but it's also to get people to think about this is what it comes to, that you need to inhale from a tin can to be able to get some clean air in this place.

Werman: Can you actually taste the air, Mary Kay?

Magistad: You can, actually, you can.

Werman: Can you feel it?

Magistad: Yeah, in fact the last couple of days I think it's made me feel a little dizzy.

Werman: Wow.

Magistad: But there are a lot of people here who came to live in China with no particular health issues who have developed asthma. There are families of ex-pats that are thinking of leaving. But, you know, millions, tens of millions of Chinese, hundreds of millions, are affected by this pollution and most of them aren't going anywhere. It's their government that has to be thinking about their welfare, and not just about how to grow the economy.

Werman: The World's Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing. Thanks a lot, Mary Kay.

Magistad: Thank you, Marco.