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Air Pollution Hits Red-Alert Status in Beijing, but Who Really Suffers?

There are major shortcomings with Chinese officials' policies on combating air pollution and how they plan to protect their citizens from its effects. (Image:   Global Panorama  via  flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)
There are major shortcomings with Chinese officials' policies on combating air pollution and how they plan to protect their citizens from its effects. (Image: Global Panorama via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

While Chinese officials attend climate change negotiations in Paris, the issue back home has been extreme, with Beijing raising its emergency measures to red alert. With the red alert comes restrictions, such as simultaneously closing factories, pulling half of all the cars off the roads, and shutting down schools.

More than 20 million residents of Beijing have been choking on the hazardous air for the second day in a row on Wednesday.

The announcement of the red alert is a first for pollution in the two years of the old color-coded alert system.

According to Bloomberg, officials braved the smog that blanketed the capital Tuesday to try to reassure citizens they were taking action. Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun, who once pledged to cut off his own head if he couldn’t tame pollution, went to Tienanmen Square to speak to residents and oversee the enforcement of car restrictions, according to China Radio International. Beijing’s Communist Party chief Guo Jinlong made a public visit to the city’s environmental protection bureau.

Saleswoman Zhang Jingtie told The Washington Post that she had no choice but to be out regardless of the restrictions through Thursday. “I stay outdoors most of the time, so I am very worried that I may have cancer if I continue to live in this kind of air for long time,” said Zhang, 25. “So, we really need to do something to protect the environment.”

Here is a report on the  Red Alert from The Wall Street Journal:

Mao Shoulong, a public administration professor from Renmin University of China, told Bloomberg: “The new alert and the officials’ inspections show the government’s determination to tackle the air pollution in Beijing, and the officials are under pressure from both the public and the leadership, but these are preventative measures, and won’t repair the polluted condition in the long term.”

But while officials in Beijing take safety measures, many cities in northern China are far worse off. In Anyang, Henan Province, their air quality index read 999, which is three times worse then Beijing. Handan, in Hebei Province, did not fare much better with a reading of 822, while the city of Shijiazhuang was closer to Beijing, registering 460.

Despite the fact that these cities had higher pollution levels than the Chinese capital, they had implemented much milder emergency plans, or had no plans at all enacted. So while Beijing was closed down, it was the same day-as-usual in the other highly polluted places; factories were kept open and children still attended school even though there were no air purifiers.

All this shows that there are major shortcomings with Chinese officials’ policies on combating air pollution, and how they plan to protect their citizens from its effects.

Having emergency plans and rules that are not uniform means that while residents in Beijing are ordered to take greater precautions, there are millions of people around the country being subjected to higher levels of pollution without taking any precautions. It also shows that the city’s red alert measures don’t address the real source of the pollution, as most of it comes from Hebei, Henan, and other provinces where their coal-burning factories continue to operate.

Here is a report by FRANCE 24 English on the first-ever red alert for polluted smog:

According to The New York Times: “The central Ministry of Environmental Protection has been pushing for greater uniformity in air emergency plans across cities, and also for more consistent enactment of those plans, but it is still facing resistance, environmental advocates and scholars say.

“Local officials are generally encouraged to emphasize social stability and economic growth, and those officials often seek to protect the operations of factories under their watch. In Hebei, for example, steel production is the dominant industry, and many factories are already struggling in an economic slowdown.”

While a new environmental protection law was made this year, many cities have avoided it. The law requires cities to hand over a list of companies and factories that are considered to be the worst polluters.

“Each city is still fighting its own game,” Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which is non-governmental and promotes transparency in pollution reporting, told The New York Times. “It’s still very hard to trust what the others are talking about. We need a new level of transparency if we want to coordinate this regional pollution control.”

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