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China Wakes Up to Its Environmental Catastrophe

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
March 13, 2014
BusinessWeek

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At its worst, the "airpocalypse" that settled over Beijing and northern China in late February had a fine particulate matter reading 16 times the recommended upper limit, turning Beijing into a veritable smoking lounge. Satellite images, a click away on the Internet, showed a massive toxic haze. Farther south, cadmium-tainted rice has been a staple of Guangzhou's food supply since at least 2009. The dead pigs that floated down Shanghai's Huangpu River last year were grotesque enough to haunt citizens even in their sleep.

With such scenes as a backdrop, Premier Li Keqiang suitably declared a "war on pollution" at the National People's Congress (NPC) in early March and outlined an array of targets, policies, and campaigns to address the environmental ills. His pronouncements are just the latest attempt to stay ahead of an issue that could be a grave threat to the leadership's credibility.

China's new leaders, including President Xi Jinping, haven't embraced environmental protection by choice. They've been compelled by a new political reality: an informed Chinese public. Throughout 2011 and 2012, American Embassy officials in Beijing measured and tweeted the true levels of hazardous pollutants in the capital. (Twitter (TWTR) is banned in China, but information boomerangs to Sina Weibo, the country's dominant microblogging platform, and spreads there just as fast.) Soon, the Chinese were demanding that their own government provide similar data. Beijing complied in 2012, and popular pressure to address the scourge of air pollution grew, even as Li sought to tamp down expectations of a quick solution. "There has been a long-term buildup to the problem," he said in January 2013, "and the resolution will require a long-term process."

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