The view from the ground always gives a new perspective, but in China it comes with limited visibility. Seeing the air pollution matched my expectations based on the photographic evidence circulating the web -- but being there to breathe the air gives me a whole new appreciation for the price the Chinese people are paying for success at attracting the world's factories.
I enjoyed a week-long visit from Shanghai in the middle of China's east coast down to Guangzhou in the south. Not enough praise exists to laud the people I met for their hospitality and friendliness. I was privileged to participate in a special tea ceremony, thanks to translation by three English majors I met in Shanghai (shout out to Coco, Kelly, and Frank!). I can only hope the anti-oxidants in the marvelous tea lend them a long life in spite of the medical statistics about the health effects of long-term exposure to smog.
People here are talking about the smog issue. The Qingming festival, or holiday of tomb-sweeping, fell during my visit. As we stepped out in the evening, circling lights eerily pierced the smog in the sky above us. The explanation for these UFOs: flying kites with lanterns attached. I later learned flying kites celebrates the tomb-sweeping day, and legend attributes the power to cure disease, prevent disaster, and bring luck to these kites that look "like twinkling stars". At the time however, one of our hosts remarked that
since no one can see the stars any more, they fly the kites with lights to remind them of the beauty of the stars.
Key drivers for action on smogThere is hope. A couple of key drivers for change became clear during my week in China.
First, since the US Embassy pushed the bar on pollution data transparency, Chinese agencies have participated in establishing Chinese air quality indicators on-line; Admitting there is a problem is the first step towards a solution. A new awareness of smog was blamed for a drop in domestic tourism to the major cities in a recent article appearing in China Daily.
Second, the air quality is starting to hurt where it counts: foreign companies forced to give expat managers hazard pay for duty in China are looking elsewhere when breaking ground on new factories. When government officials see a decline in growth driven by these companies, the pressure to act rises.
A third critical driver stems from Chinese pride. Beijing took extraordinary measures to reduce smog during the 2008 Olympics, but such measures cannot achieve sustainable improvements. Even if they accept the economic damage, Beijing officials eying the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this fall fear that the Olympic achievements of 2008 cannot be matched as the beneficial rains and winds of late summer will not be working their magic at the fall APEC meeting.
Signs of actual progress offer the final hint that the drivers may be picking up speed. The Ministry of Environment boasts of fining 1800 law breakers in an enforcement campaign between November and February. Moreover, the agencies will bring new technologies to bear: monitoring by satellite, remote sensors, and unmanned aerial vehicles will augment the arsenal of tools available to catch violators.
These key drivers cannot be ignored, which increases the likelihood that real solutions to the smog problem are on the (not so visible) horizon. For the sake of over a billion creative, intelligent, fun and friendly people, I certainly hope so.