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.
These improvements have had a dramatic effect on the Chinese lifespan. When China began following the “capitalist road” in 1978, the average life expectancy was 66.5 years, according to the World Bank. By 2010, after three decades of economic development, that number had risen to 73.27 years, more than a 10 percent increase. And it’s notable that these gains have happened even as China has become more polluted.
It’s true that the environmental damage takes a grave toll. The World Bank estimates that pollution in China causes 750,000 premature deaths each year. That’s an incredible statistic, but it has to be paired with another: The World Bank also finds that 170 million Chinese (about 13 percent of the population) are living on $1.25 or less per day, and that only India has a population that is more impoverished. As these millions wait for their initiation into the middle class, raw poverty remains the biggest obstacle to their physical well-being. Pollution in China comes at an economic cost, too — around $100 billion a year, by the World Bank’s 2007 reckoning. But that’s still less than 6 percent of the country’s GDP.
“Sometimes the gains really outweigh the problems,” says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a visiting professor at Nanjing Medical University. “But we may fail to recognize that the Chinese leaders’ economic policies might also be responsible for many of the social woes and health crises that China now is facing. Of course, there’s the issue of how to measure this social cost of development, and unfortunately, so far, we don’t have a reliable indicator to measure what is the total gain, what is the total loss, and which one is greater.” Absent such a clean calculation, the best solution would be to allow the Chinese people to decide for themselves. But China’s authoritarian system prevents them from doing so.
In liberal democracies, voters can weigh economic development against environmental protection at the ballot box. But in China, economic development has become the government’s best claim to legitimacy, which explains why Beijing is so sensitive to environmental criticism. Even at a local level, the speed of economic development is the standard used to measure officials’ performance and determine their promotions.
China’s legal system also contributes to its environmental problems. In countries with an independent, fair judiciary, citizens can sue and seek compensation when irresponsible development hurts them. But in China, the courts are explicitly a tool of the Communist government. To make matters worse, many corrupt cadres have a financial stake in the companies that harm the environment most. Citizens who petition for redress stand little chance, and in some instances they’re punished for filing suit.
Furthermore, the government owns all the land in China, though citizens can own property rights to businesses and homes constructed upon it. That government ownership makes it harder for citizens to be stewards of the land. This is not to say Chinese don’t feel pride in their land — frequent uprisings about forced evictions demonstrate their deep connection with their home plots. But when property is publicly owned, individual responsibility is eroded.
Dirty air is an easy metaphor for dirty governance, and this week’s Airpocalypse is the visible, breathable evidence of all these problems. To be sure, China needs environmental reform. But until it is accompanied by political reform, China’s most vulnerable citizens will have the most to lose.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She has traveled extensively in China as a Robert Novak fellow with the Phillips Foundation.