Jokes, Lies and Pollution in China

By Hua, Yu | International Herald Tribune, October 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Jokes, Lies and Pollution in China


Hua, Yu, International Herald Tribune


As steel and chemical plants pollute, officials respond with an anti-smoking campaign.

After my physical exam this year, the doctor showed me his findings. Next to an irregularity he had noted concerning lung function, I was surprised to see the words "air pollution." It was first time this had ever appeared in my health report.

This reminded me of the uproar in China in June of last year regarding PM 2.5 -- the airborne particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less that are particularly harmful to our health. Reports of high PM 2.5 levels, monitored and revealed by the U.S. Embassy and various consulates across China, fueled public concerns about air pollution. But the government went on the defensive, with Wu Xiaoqing, vice minister for environmental protection, rebuking the United States and claiming its monitoring had violated international conventions and Chinese law.

After a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry issued a similar protest, a joker on the Internet took things a step further. "As everyone knows, in keeping with international norms, U.S. Embassies count as American territory. Data obtained in such locations show only that U.S. air quality is poor."

Prior to these PM 2.5 reports, hardly anyone in China except for a few environmental professionals knew that these tiny particles can directly enter the bronchial tubes, interfere with gas exchange in the lungs and cause a variety of serious health problems. While Chinese officials criticized America and minimized the dangers of PM 2.5, Chinese citizens went online to vent their dissatisfaction with the government. Face masks sold out and cans of compressed air were hawked on the streets.

Hazardous smog has enveloped many areas of China. Last January the smog was so thick in Anji County in Zhejiang Province that a fire there went unnoticed by local residents for three hours. Last week, visibility in the northeastern city of Harbin was less than 10 meters, forcing the closure of all schools.

As China's two most important political congresses were being held in the early part of the year, and the new president and prime minister were named, Beijing and other northern cities were shrouded in toxic smog, setting records in some areas for the most days with hazardous air. The pollution was a hot topic for everyone while the congresses were under way.

It's widely assumed that air purifiers have been installed in our leaders' offices and homes, but they still have to go outside, and when they do they have to breathe the same polluted air as everyone else. Maybe because our leaders are also suffering from the effects of pollution, or maybe because there's increasing pressure from society, our government has made a sudden about-face in its attitude toward PM 2.5, no longer chafing about monitoring by the Americans or minimizing the hazards.

In the summer, Zhou Shengxian, the environment minister, announced that the total budget for the next five years for measures to combat air pollution would amount to about $280 billion. He did not provide specifics on how this money would be spent, indicating only that thousands of PM 2. …

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