China’s Airpocalypse
As much as China needs environmental reform, it also needs political reform.

Smog has inundated the Beijing region in recent weeks.


Last Monday, a Beijing lawyer named Xu Xin tweeted a grey color block; the post went viral, shared more than 70,000 times. As Xu quipped, it approximated the view from Tiananmen Square, which was enshrouded in record-breaking haze.

Already garnering comparisons to London’s Great Smog of 1952, China’s so-called Airpocalypse is as much a political problem as an environmental one. The air quality has been both statistically and anecdotally shocking — but China’s poorest citizens might actually argue, with good reason, that pollution has been good for them.

More on that in a moment. First, it’s necessary to understand just how bad the air got this week, not just in Beijing but in many parts of China. On Sunday night, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported an air-quality-index reading of 755; in comparison, the air-quality index in the United States surpasses 300 only when there is a major forest fire. In fact, on Monday night the smog was so dense in Zhejiang Province that it took three hours for anyone to notice that a furniture factory was on fire.

When Beijing’s pollution surpassed the “hazardous” ranking in 2010, the U.S. Embassy’s popular Twitter feed dubbed the air quality “crazy bad.” This time, it chose a more diplomatic phrasing, saying that the pollution was “beyond index.” Chinese netizens’ translation was a bit more colorful: The smog was so dense that it had “exploded the scale.” Visibility shrank to a mere 218 yards, the equivalent of less than three north-south Manhattan blocks. A spectator could stand at the foot of a skyscraper, look up, and not see the top. In the city of Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province, reports emerged that the air smelled of burnt coal. And while, contrary to myth, the Great Wall can’t be seen from space, the air pollution was quite visible, as a photo from NASA showed.

Online face-mask sales soared, rising by 130 percent over the weekend, according to the Wall Street Journal. Alibaba sold 10,000 masks to Beijing residents on January 12 and 13 alone. The very old and very young were most at risk, and Beijing Children’s Hospital reported that it treated more than 7,000 patients in a single day. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control’s Beijing deputy director told WiredUK that he feared the spread of illnesses: “If a flu patient sneezes, the virus in the smoggy air will stay longer than usual. So people passing by will have a higher possibility of breathing the virus in.”

Such environmental catastrophes generally inspire some national soul-searching, and that has been the case here. China often censors stories about pollution or environmental damage, and there’s not even a literal translation for smog; in Mandarin, it’s just called “fog.” This time, though, the smog is so heavy that Beijing has permitted the official media to run blunt editorials addressing the air quality. Many have called for more stringent environmental controls.

But while China undeniably needs a better environmental policy, extreme regulation would also be dangerous. On the one hand, it would be foolish to deny that the pollution caused by China’s reckless development has resulted in serious health concerns for many Chinese. But that same development has improved the economic lot of millions of citizens. And more money means better access to everything from nutritious food to doctors.

Doing a cost-benefit analysis of China’s current development model is almost impossible, but there is reason to believe that China’s rapid development — however haphazardly conducted — has resulted in a net gain for most of its citizens.

Chinese health care has improved significantly as the country has developed economically. In 1995, annual per capita health-care spending in China was a mere $21, according to the World Health Organization. By 2010, that had risen to $221, much of which is reportedly paid for by the government. Looking at the numbers another way, in 2006, China spent $156 billion on health care; by 2011, it had more than doubled its spending, to $357 billion. Spending on medical products has also increased. These expenditures are yielding results; a 2005 report from the World Health Organization found that from 1979 to 2003, the mortality rate for mothers, infants, and children under five declined, putting China, according to WHO, on a par with other “middle-income” countries. 

More money also means better access to other sorts of basic necessities. In 1978, the United Nations found that nearly a third of all Chinese were undernourished. These statistics are somewhat flawed because the United Nations tacitly acknowledges Beijing’s territorial claims by counting Taiwan as Chinese turf, factoring the much more prosperous Taiwanese into its Chinese statistics. Nevertheless, by 1990, the proportion of undernourished Chinese had gone down to 18 percent. And by 2008, only one in ten was still hungry.


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