WASHINGTON – Can an autocracy be challenged by heavy smog? This sounds like a silly question. But it isn’t. Very heavy air pollution is now a major political enemy of China’s Communist Party. Beijing’s air is toxic, at times extremely toxic. And in other major cities in North Eastern China it is the same.
Heavy smog in Beijing
After several days of heavy smog, although reluctantly, the Chinese capital authorities had to declare a “red alert”. This is a big deal. This is an admission that air pollution has gone beyond hazard levels. This is a crisis. Indeed, on December 8 the air quality index had reached 300. By contrast in New York City on the same day the level was 49. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, a level of 300 is unheard of in American urban areas. In Beijing people have been advised not to go outdoors, or do so only wearing face masks. Schools are closed. There are heavy restrictions on the use of automobiles.
A political issue?
But how can this become a political problem? Very simple. Heavy air pollution is the dark side of the mad race towards higher GDP numbers that China started about 30 years ago. Well, now the economy is not doing so great anymore, while the legacy of development without any environmental safeguards is here to stay. People know that this development policy was devised and managed by the Chinese Communist Party. They are in charge. They bear responsibility.
Now, will anybody try to hold them accountable? This will be very difficult in a country where there is no room for any kind of legal political opposition. However, now millions of people know that their lives have been endangered. And this widespread awareness is new.
Silence on pollution
In the past, anything dealing with pollution levels was virtually a state secret in China. The authorities were silent on the health hazards caused by runaway industrial development. When they published data, it was incomplete and false. The unaware people in Beijing and much of Northern China were told that hazy days were due to “fog”.
Well, now they know better. This is not harmless “fog”. This is smog, at times extremely heavy, produced by thousands of coal-fired power generation plants and countless polluting industrial plants.
This new awareness of the health hazards posed by heavy pollution one day can turn into a political phenomenon. Please note that about half of China’s public demonstrations have to do with protests about environmental issues.
So, here is the thing. People may accept restrictions to freedom of speech if the leaders can deliver prosperity. But air quality is not negotiable. In the past the silent deal was that China’s leaders had “earned” the right to rule by showing their skills as competent economic stewards. But now it turns out that they were not so smart. Do they still have a “right” to rule?
Growth, at a price
Yes, the leaders delivered growth. But at a huge price. And the price is paid today and will be paid in the future by the common people. Unlike the rich and the top leaders, they who do not live in mansions equipped with scrubbers and air purification systems.
Health statistics indicate that anybody living in Northern China on average will live at least 5 years less that people living in the less polluted south.
The problem is that in the short term, this gigantic pollution mess is not fixable. It will take years and heavy investments in expensive renewable energy and other clean tech applications to substantially improve China’s air quality. And air pollution is only one part of the larger environmental degradation problem. China’s waters are polluted, and so is much of its soil.
Tens of millions of unhappy citizens
The fact is that smog and heavy air pollution cannot be hidden or explained away any longer. And the 20 million Beijing residents are not happy. Add to them tens of millions of city dwellers in the many industrial regions of North Eastern China and you have a lot of disgruntled citizens. Thanks to growth, they have more income. They bought apartments. They own a car. They have more disposable income.
But now they know that their health and life expectancy are in real jeopardy. Now there are several protests here and there, triggered by major environmental concerns. Are they going to morph into a real political movement?
Not today. But, in the future, who knows?