Much of northeastern China was under an air emergency the early part of this week, with 460 million people affected according to one estimate. On Tuesday, 24 cities had posted the red alert signal.
Under the alert, Tianjin closed all roadways leading to the city but one. In next-door Beijing, more than 700 enterprises stopped production. Airports cancelled flights as planes could not land in the goop. Governments warned people not to go outside. Even short travel to North China, a friend wrote to me this week, is a “Death Warrant.”
No surprise North China’s residents are temporarily leaving the region, making them “smog refugees.” As the South China Morning Post reports, “Legions of Beijing residents are fleeing the capital and heading south in search of cleaner air as the year’s worst smog lays siege to the city.”
Flights to other Chinese destinations are fuller than usual, and many citizens were traveling abroad. Online travel agency Ctrip.com estimates a million Chinese each year travel to other countries in search of clean air.
This year’s “airpocalypse”—temperature inversions in Chinese winters trap pollutants for long periods—is particularly nasty. The level of PM2.5, the fine particles that damage human lungs, reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province. The World Health Organization recommends air contain no more than 10 micrograms over the course of a year.
The Communist Party and the central government each year follow the same playbook, trotting out experts who attempt to minimize the hazards. In addition to telling the world that China’s air is continually improving—something many Chinese residents dispute—state-backed experts like to make comparisons with the US.
“Economic reform and policy is going in the right direction,” said Wang Min of Peking University to the Financial Times this week. “But we may need another 20 years to solve this problem, just as America did in the 1960s.”
“Forty years ago, Los Angeles was the same as us,” Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, said in 2013 to Time. “If they can fix it, why can’t we? And if we do it smart and we take it seriously, we can do it even quicker.”
To begin with, it is wrong to suggest that LA’s air quality ever reached China’s grotesque levels. Moreover, Ma and others do not see the one critical difference between the self-corrective capacity of China and the United States. The US is a democracy, and, as imperfect as its form of government may be, bottom-up pressure can force change. China’s increasingly coercive top-down system stifles it.
“The government is under too little pressure,” writes an online poster using the moniker HJ. “It’s not enough to make them reform and make people’s lives their top priority.” And HJ, who is probably not former leader Hu Jintao, makes this point: “The people are under too much pressure—if we try to protest, we’re said to be ‘creating public disorder.’ ”
The Communist Party’s defenders—and even some of its critics—point to its political system as meritocratic, but unfortunately authoritarianism works against clean air—and clean water and clean soil for that matter.
Lauri Myllyvirta of Greenpeace in Beijing has established that link. “Since the second quarter of this year, when steel prices and output started growing, we saw air quality decline in the north-east,” he told the FT. “It’s a result of the government’s old-fashioned stimulus that boosted the industrial sectors.”
To finish this thought, China’s state enterprises, which Chinese leader Xi Jinping has strengthened in his effort to bolster Communist Party rule, have become increasingly powerful in Beijing circles. They have used newly found political clout to enrich themselves through many means, including getting the government to launch stimulus programs and to provide subsidies so that they can continue to produce steel and other industrial goods far in excess of commercial demand. Their emissions have contributed to the air emergencies of this week—and previous years.
It took too long for American citizens to clean their air, but they had the ballot box to force change on reluctant officials and business interests.
Chinese citizens, on the other hand, know they can’t push their leaders very far. That’s why they just flee.