Air pollution in China, especially in the capital city of Beijing, has become an ever-increasing issue among residents and environmentalists both in China and abroad. Unfortunately, any hope that the issue will be resolved in the near future is merely a pipe dream.
Throughout January and February of 2013 Beijing’s air quality has become an indicator of the dangerous levels of pollution plaguing China on a daily basis. Though physical indicators of economic progress, including power plants, oil refineries and automobiles, are becoming more familiar across the country, the weakly enforced environmental protection measures placed on Chinese companies have resulted in an array of new issues.
This forced the Environmental Protection Agency to create a new “black” level on the AQI scale, which is described simply as “beyond index.”
The world’s universal measurement of air pollution known as the Air Quality Index (AQI) shows Beijing consistently reaching unprecedented levels. This forced the Environmental Protection Agency to create a new “black” level on the AQI scale, which is described simply as “beyond index.”
Issues like China’s lagging fuel standards, increased industrial output from coal-using power plants and booming automobile sales are all contributors to the current air quality issue. This adds to a host of additional troubles, including contamination of rivers and reservoirs and the destruction of forests where China’s already scarce wildlife has established a frail and dwindling last bastion.
The big question is how does the current government faction, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), plan to stop and reverse this unhealthy trend? Sadly, the answer looks grim. The economic benefits for China have time and time again outweighed the perceived environmental damages in the minds of government officials.
According to the Dow Jones Business News, ConocoPhillips, one of America’s largest energy producers, recently signed a deal with the PetroChina Company to study unconventional shale natural gas in central China’s Sichuan Basin. In exchange, PetroChina will receive large stakes in two of ConocoPhillips’ Australian gas discovery and export operations.
Meanwhile, a Chinese government study on soil pollution that began in 2006 and cost over one billion Yuan, roughly $160,000,000 USD, was declared a state secret. Lilian Lin of the Wall Street Journal reported on the issue this past February. Chinese authorities have deemed that information on soil pollution is “not fit for public consumption,” Lin said. This Chinese political jargon is often used to cover up information that would potentially harm the Chinese Communist Party’s image if exposed.
This is the latest development regarding the state security issue in modern China. Corruption among state officials is another leading cause of concern regarding environmental pollution and mistrust in the government. Despite Chinese Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping’s public request directing government officials to cut extravagant spending, outrage has arisen on China’s mainland when an online request to post pictures of luxury cars with government license plates (referred to as “white-plated cars”) revealed government officials driving cars worth millions of Yuan.
Cars such as the Maserati Quattroporte, which is worth over two million Yuan or about $320,000, were pictured far from their registered areas of jurisdiction. With such rampant displays of corruption, a public outcry should not be far behind.
In recent months the social and state-run media have become bolder, even to the point of openly slamming the CCP through online social media sites like Weibo and RenRen, the equivalents of Twitter and Facebook. However, many of these dissidents have been met with unabashed and extreme retaliation from party officials.
One such story comes from the Zhejiang province on China’s southeastern coast. A 60-year-old farmer named Chen Yuqian challenged Chinese environmental officials to swim in the polluted rivers they were meant to keep clean. This was in protest of the pollution of a river near Chen’s home, which he suspects has been contaminated by toxic waste from a nearby paper mill.
Tom Phillips of the Telegraph reported on the story and noted that instead of government action, Chen’s daughter said Chen Yuqian was severely beaten by about 40 men for nearly five hours while they scolded Chen for his Internet usage. Phillips interviewed Chen Yuqian after the attack. “No one has really ever cared about our lives or our plight. If we can’t work and live normally and drink water safely, then what is the point in us living at all?” Chen said.
Phillips also covered the issue of the aptly named “cancer villages” located throughout China. Reports of cancer caused by poisoned soil, air and water are a direct result of nearby factories and power plants using toxic and sometimes banned chemicals then improperly disposing of them. As these dangerous chemicals seep into the ground and permeate the air, clusters of villages and towns across China have been hit with extreme levels of cancer. It was only until early this year that the Chinese government officially admitted these cancer villages do in fact exist. Cancer is now China’s number one killer, with one fourth of Chinese today dying from some form of cancer.
It has long been a CCP policy to silence dissidents, especially environmentalists. Jo Ling Kent and Jaime Florcruz from CNN interviewed Chen Guangcheng, a blind environmental activist who was placed under house arrest in 2011 after his release from four years of imprisonment for leading protests against pollution in his community.
“My house is basically under surveillance 24 hours a day and we can’t get out of the house and the same thing happens to my wife,” Chen said. “Only my mother can go out to get something for us to eat and stay alive.”
Chen and his family fled to the United States in 2012, but his nephew was sentenced to over three years in prison in possible retaliation for Chen’s newfound fame and attention in America. Chen is one of the many political activists who have been shuttered and confined because of their dissidence.
The main problem in China’s environmental struggle is the unwillingness of the CCP to confront the obvious pollution problem. The common viewpoint of most officials is that obeying environmental standards will be detrimental to China’s growth, which has slowed significantly over the past decade. Many Chinese officials are closely linked to energy and manufacturing corporations that are seen as responsible for a majority of the pollution in China today and are resilient to any measures that might hamper their earnings.
Erica Downs and Michal Meidan from China Security researched the linkage between Chinese officials and the oil industry. Su Shulin was named governor of the tropical and prosperous Fujian province in southeast China. As a result of his appointment, Su was forced to resign from his former position as President of Sinopec Group Company, China’s largest oil, gas and petroleum producer and exporter.
Su is not alone in his situation. Wei Liucheng, former Party Secretary and governor of Hainan Province, was also the general manager of China National Offshore Oil Corporation. The current Minister of Public Security, Guo Shengkun, is also the general manager of the Aluminum Corporation of China. It has become commonplace for CCP officials to hold simultaneous government and business positions, which creates a conflict of interest for many top-ranking politicians.
These factors have significantly contributed to Beijing’s worsening air pollution and are the reason why an obvious standstill exists within a visibly harmful issue. With no desire to regulate production, no means to combat corruption and no influence for the disenfranchised victims of pollution, it seems that the matter of poor air quality in China is just another one of the many problems here to stay.