Lifestyle & Belief

Is China's pollution really getting worse?


A policeman directs traffic in thick smog in China's northeastern city of Harbin on Oct. 21, 2013.



By now you've probably heard about the smog in China that all but shut down one of its largest cities this week. 

On Monday, schools were closed in Harbin, in China's northeast, because people were having trouble seeing their own fingers.

More: China smog emergency shuts city of 11 million

Traffic ground to a stop in the city of 11 million. At least two buses unintentionally went off route. Intense, for sure. But is it anything new?

GlobalPost caught up with Susan Jakes, senior fellow at Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations and former Harbin resident, to ask what's different about this scene than the one she can recall.

Jakes, who edits ChinaFile, explains why it's not just coal-burning that has Harbin in a hard place and what, if anything, is really changing in China on the pollution front. 

GlobalPost: This seems bad. How bad is it? 

Jakes: It's pretty bad. In video footage from Harbin over the past couple days, you can’t tell whether it’s night or day. Cars are driving around with their hazard lights flashing. 

Why is it getting this bad right now?

Well, the state controls when the heat turns on. It goes on for everyone at the same time on the same day. The spike in Harbin is due to the fact that they just turned on the heat, and heat demands the burning of coal.

The last time I was in Harbin was in 2006, and coal was just everywhere. There were three-story-high piles of coal outside my door. I was just looking at one of the first letters I wrote home when I first arrived in Harbin in 1998. I wrote: 

Harbin is a trip. I'm not really sure how else to characterize it. It is a city-sized campaign poster for the Luddite party ... industry gone seriously awry. Everything is black, including, often, the air itself — black ice, black snow, black stuff in my nose, black hands after I take a walk.

And Harbin isn't even in the Top 10 most polluted cities in China.

Wow. It sounds like it's been bad for a while. What's changing now, if anything?

It does look worse now. The difference, I think, is that there are cars now. In 1998, there were few cars on the road in Harbin, and it was rare for my friends in Beijing to have a car. Today, that's not the case.

Scientists have said that even though coal-burning makes up a large portion of the problem, that car emissions are really the crucial factor, at least in Beijing. Over the last 10 years, the number of cars on the road in China has quadrupled.

The population has grown, and there's more prosperity. People have more stuff, more electrical appliances, larger homes.

Is it just that there are more emissions, though, or is it that people are more aware of the problem and also more vocal about it?

They weren’t monitoring air quality back then. People today have a much higher degree of awareness of the severity of the problem, and the public has forced the government to keep track of what’s in the air and publish that information. Also, [the information] can circulate broadly because of social media.

I sense that it's a little of both — worsening air quality and a higher level of awareness.

What seems different to me now is the pervasive sense among ordinary people that this is really a problem. It used to be, "You picky Americans, it's not that big a deal, you just aren’t used to it." Now people are more aware of the health consquences and they're worried about their children.  

Harbin. (AFP/Getty Images)

What is Beijing doing about it? Anything?

The rhetoric is changing. It used to be, “We have to develop first and clean up later.” They said it wasn't fair for America to wag fingers, since it hadn't made compromises while it was industrializing. 

Today, businesses have ceded to demands from the public and begun to release information about their air pollution. Beijing just pledged $800 million to clean up air in northern China. 

Now, there hasn’t been much success enforcing regulations to the extent that they’re making a big impact. 

What needs to happen in order for regulations to be enforced?

Local leaders need to be properly incentivized. Violators need to be exposed and punished. Without an independent press or independent courts, that's very difficult to achieve.

Has China cut back on coal? 

I don't think so. It's unlikely that the country will really shift away from coal. It's extremely plentiful in China, cheap and accessible.

What can they do, then?

They can limit the number of cars on the road. They can have better enforced and more stringent emissions regulations for factories. 

But it's a really delicate situation because many of the potential fixes suggest a slowing of economic growth. It's hard to say to someone, "You have finally pulled your family out of poverty and you want a car and you can’t have one because the country can’t afford to let you drive."

Harder still when you look at the per capita energy consumption between the US and China, and the US still consumes more.