Program—Beijing's Climate Politics
Desk — Beijing | May 2013

Beijing's Climate Politics
By Ou Ning

27 January 2013, a video published on Youtube attracted a large number of hits: Matt Hope, a London artist based in Beijing, managed to create a “Breathing Bike” with waste materials to deal with the increasingly hazy weather in Beijing.[footnote
(accessed 21 May 2013).] The bike is equipped with an IKEA dustbin, fighter pilot mask, a wheeled motor, a filter, and a motor helmet connected by a rubber tube. The pedal-powered motor drives the filter, producing a positive charge that wipes out the dust in the air and generates a negative charge. This negative charge attracts the particulate matter in the smog, after which the clean air is supplied to the mask for the rider. The video recorded the whole process when Matt Hope rode along the streets in Beijing and explained the usage of this bike. “[The bike] actually makes 5,000 volts of electricity […] if you ride this in the rain you could potentially kill yourself.” Obviously, the defects made it unable to be popularized; however, it looked more like an “artwork” and drew more public and media attention to the discussion of air pollution in Beijing, which was already a key issue in the media in 2012.

Much earlier, on 21 December 2009, Evan Osnos, The New Yorker’s correspondent in Beijing, referred to the horrible smoggy weather in Beijing in his special report about the rapid development of clean energy technology in China. “After four years in Beijing, I’ve learned how to gauge the pollution before I open the curtains; by dawn on the smoggiest days, the lungs ache. The city government does not dwell on the details; its daily air-quality measurement does not even tally the tiniest particles of pollution, which are the most damaging to the respiratory system.”[footnote Evan Osnos, “Green Giant: Beijing’s crash program for clean energy,” The New Yorker (December 21 2009),
(accessed 21 May 2013).] After I moved from Guangzhou to Beijing in 2007, it took me several months to get rid of the throat discomfort and become accustomed to the weather. On days when the whole city is surrounded by the fog, you can barely see anything more than ten meters away, even at noon, creating a doomsday effect. And it happens, a lot. Not until I read the Chinese version of Evan Osnos’ article published in Duku in July 2010, did I realize this is called haze, a serious kind of air pollution.

Feng Li *Beijing's heavy haze* juxtaposes a LED image of a clear blue sky against the actual grey and polluted sky surrounding Tian'anmen Square. January 18, 2013. Copyright: Getty Images

In Evan Osnos’ article, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was mentioned to have installed an air monitor on the roof of one of its buildings, and every hour it posts the results to a Twitter feed, with a score ranging from 1, which is the cleanest air, to 500, the dirtiest. Ever since then, I have been following the U.S. Embassy’s @BeijingAir on Twitter. According to the AQI (Air Quality Index), American cities consider anything above 100 to be unhealthy. The rare times in which an American city has scored above 300 have been in the midst of forest fires. Nevertheless, the score shown on @BeijingAir is often 500 with a public-health warning “hazardous.” On these days, I will minimize my activities outdoors, just staying at home. In 2012, heated discussions about air pollution in Beijing exploded on the Sina microblog, the biggest social media site (like Twitter) used in China. More and more people are aware of what PM2.5 (particulate matter, 2.5 microns or less in diameter) is and they feel angry at the fact that the Beijing municipal government did nothing. According to the official story, the daily air-quality measurements published by the U.S. Embassy on Twitter are malicious attacks on Chinese authorities. From then on, a PM2.5 index has appeared in the Beijing government’s daily air-quality measurements, while the discrepancy from the American measurements brought about more taunts from netizens.

Beijing is the capital of China, the location of central government, and the residence of officials who have ‘privileged’ channels in housing, transportation, medical treatment, food, and goods supply. Some netizens said that air pollution is a great leveler, that is, no matter how privileged you are, we are all equal when it comes to the air we breathe. International environmentalists used the phrase “environmental justice” to describe environmental equality. But this seems almost sarcastic when we consider the level of haze in Beijing. On 17 September 2012, in Beijing, Chen Guangbiao, a Chinese businessman famous for ‘showing off’, announced his plan to sell 100,000 cans of fresh air collected from Jinggang Mountain, Yan’an, Xinjiang, Tibet, Yushu, Kangding, and his hometown Wuhe in Anhui Province, for 5RMB per can. “After three swings, the can will be filled with air. When the chip inside detects a certain amount of negative oxygen ions, the cap will automatically close.” Chen Guangbiao said, “The amount of negative oxygen ions in one can equals that in five oxygen carriers in a hospital. And each can contains 400–1000 grams of air.”1Jianghuai Morning Post, 17 September 2012. No one takes this seriously. (Anyway, who will treat fresh air as a rare commodity?) In the end, Chen Guangbiao gave these cans out for free, instead.

In January 2013, under great pressure from the public, the ex-Premier Wen Jiabao and the newly-elected Premier Li Keqiang both gave out directions that all efforts should be taken to tackle the air pollution in Beijing. The central government was furious. The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau later claimed that there were three main factors causing the haze. First of all, Beijing is surrounded by mountains on three sides. When the atmosphere is stable, it is difficult for pollutants of various kinds to diffuse. The highly condensed air pollutants then transform in bulk into PM2.5 through chemical changes. Secondly, Beijing’s population of permanent residents had exceeded 20 million by 2012. All together, these households operate 5.2 million automobiles and burn 23 million tons of coal, with a total consumption of naphtha and diesel oil reaching 6.3 million tons, and total construction sites covering 190 million square meters. The total amount of emissions released remains high, due to large amounts of vehicle exhaust fumes, coal burning, industrial pollution, and dust spread from construction sites. Thirdly, the pollutants from neighboring cities, like Shijiangzhuang, Baoding, and Xingtai, also affect Beijing, which makes the already severely polluted environment even worse.2Beijing Morning Post, 30 January 2013. Mr. Wang Anshun, Mayor of Beijing, promised the central government, again, that 100 billion RMB worth of investment would be allocated to tackling pollution in the next three years.3Beijing Evening Post, 29 March 2013.

Beijing’s haze is only one of the unintended consequences of China’s rapid development in the last two decades. Following the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989, the legitimacy and prestige of the Party were severely damaged. In 1992, another wave of reform and opening up began, as Deng Xiaoping made his famous remarks during his visit to southern China. Since then, China has fully embraced its new free market economy. His remarks opened a new route for China, as it diminished the negative effects of the Tiananmen Incident and the political appeals of the people, as well as consolidating the prestige of the ruling party and safeguarding political stability through a stronger economy and higher income for the people. Rural land was continuously being occupied or merged and the surplus of rural labor diminished significantly—they were all co-opted into the deepening of industrialization and urbanization. Rural areas started to go broke when rural laborers poured into urban areas. Having lost their land in rural areas, these people still had no access to public resources in the cities due to the household registration system, so they gathered in slums and fierce confrontation between classes began. As most job opportunities are in the cities, they witnessed rapid population growth, the expansion of urban space, and a construction boom, which made the entire nation a construction site. With its urban planning deeply influenced by the American model, the roads were mainly designed for cars. Hence, the number of vehicles rose sharply, creating an increasing demand for energy resources, and, as a consequence, the excessive dependence on natural resources also weakened the ecosystem. The overheated growth of the real estate industry resulted in a lack of available land, which required demolition of old towns for new ones. The government failed to keep its promise to protect historic sites and people across the country were thrown into a crisis of recognition: they experienced a sense of placelessness. All these factors cost China environmental and social justice.

People will protest spontaneously when development jeopardizes their living environment. In the past few years, in spite of the inherent egoism and short-termism, a series of “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) campaigns caused by numerous PX (xylol) projects stimulated people’s democratic awareness to a certain degree. As a communication tool, the Internet has provided a convenient space for people to voice their opinions and mobilize others. Take the protest against the haze in Beijing as an example: here, the Internet played an important role in rallying popular will. Compared with the inept Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and People’s Congress, the Internet contributes more to the development of Critical Mass in China. In Taiwan in the early 1980s, questioned on its legitimacy to govern the island, the Kuomintang (KMT) lifted martial law and focused on developing the economy and improving people’s livelihoods, in order to shift people’s attention from politics. Striving for position among the Four Asian Tigers, various environmental problems brought by rapid economic growth strengthened civil environmental protection movements, which, in cooperation with the surging non-party movements, converted Taiwan into a democratic society. Will the rise of environmental protection movements in China similarly trigger the process of social democracy?

Chinese leaders have already sensed the environmental crisis. When the former president Hu Jintao put forward his Scientific Outlook on Development strategy, he was fully aware that it had been a dead end for China to develop at any cost and that “ecological civilization” had served as the key word in the conversion of the Communist Party’s thought. According to Evan Osnos, Chinese leaders made a huge investment in new energy technology early in 2001 and redoubled their commitment in 2006. They boosted funding for research and set targets for installing wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and other renewable sources of energy that were higher than goals in the United States. A green China can not only subside the domestic fight for a clean environment and calm the political unrest, but also gain initiative during global climate negotiations. The Chinese Communist Party is no longer as conservative, stubborn, or dictatorial as it used to be. The Party has updated their thoughts, broadened their horizons, absorbed all the possible supports, and strived to conquer their opposition by adjusting their strategies continuously. Therefore, it’s still too early to say for certain that the current Chinese political system will be overturned by popular power.

In April 2013, I packed all my stuff into nearly a hundred boxes and transported them by an eight-meter container truck from Beijing to Bishan, a village in Yi County, Anhui Province. Actually, I didn’t move here specifically to avoid the haze in Beijing, and my fear of air pollution was not so strong that I needed to buy canned fresh air from Chen Guangbiao. It is only a personal escape from a higher- to a lower-polluted place and this hasn’t solved the environmental problem. Like the NIMBY campaign, you only protect local safety by preventing the development of any polluting industry nearby, but the campaign didn’t realize the importance of joining in the anti-pollution community. I moved to Bishan because I decided to reconstruct this rural area and conduct ecological experiments here. Instead of being overly dependent on the city, we should retrieve the value of the countryside through agricultural development and eco-environmental protection. Only in this way can we balance the population between urban and rural areas, reduce city pollution, and control energy use, solving environmental problems in the whole of society fundamentally. This point of view may still be more of a brainstorm or an “artwork,” like the bike designed by my friend Matt Hope, and it may still face many practical difficulties in reality, but, at least, we have made our first step.

15 May 2013, Bishan

Translated by Peggy Panziyi