Saturday, December 17, 2011

. . . worth reading China's Dirty Business

While doing research on Chinese golf, I occasionally stumble across phrases like “the wonders of fresh, clean air” and “the purifying effects of clean air.” For me, such phrases always went through one eye and out the other. Like most Americans, I take clean air mostly for granted.

The Chinese aren’t so lucky. China’s over-crowded, poorly regulated cities have become a threat to good health.

Sure, I’ve often read often about China’s polluted cities. But the message didn’t hit home with me until a week or so ago, when I read this dispatch in the New York Times:

Capital International Airport in Beijing was forced to cancel hundreds of flights on Monday because of heavy smog and weather conditions. The cancellations were the latest sign that pollution in China’s largest cities, among the worst in the world, is leading to significant economic losses.

That paragraph was my wake-up call. And the next day, the Times followed up with a longer, more detailed account of life unprotected by a Clean Air Act, where government officials mislead and misinform and cover their tracks with deceit.

No wonder China’s golf operators seize every opportunity to tout the quality of their air. A marketing message that focuses on the healthful, therapeutic effects of golf resonates among people who cough their way to work every morning.

Here’s a condensed version of the Times’ follow-up story.

The statement posted online along with a photograph of central Beijing muffled in a miasma of brown haze did not mince words: “The end of the world is imminent.”

The ceaseless churning of factories and automobile engines in and around Beijing has led to this: hundreds of flights canceled since Sunday because of smog, stores sold out of face masks, and many Chinese complaining on the Internet that officials are failing to level with them about air quality or make any improvements to the environment.

Chronic pollution in Beijing, temporarily scrubbed clean for the 2008 Summer Olympics, has made people angry for a long time, but the disruptions it causes to daily life are now raising questions about the economic cost and the government’s ability to ensure the safety of the population.

“As a Chinese citizen, we have been kept in the dark on this issue for too long,” said Yu Ping, the father of a seven-year-old boy, who has started a public campaign to demand that officials report more accurately about Beijing’s air quality. “The government is just so bureaucratic that they don’t seem to care whether we common people live or die.” . . .

The motionless cloud of pollution that has smothered the capital and its surroundings in recent days has frayed tempers. Long stretches of highway have been shut down because of low visibility, hobbling transportation of people and goods. Workers at Capital International Airport have faced crowds of irate travelers whose flights have been grounded. From Sunday to 11 a.m. Tuesday, more than 700 outbound and inbound flights were canceled, one airport official said. . . .

An announcement at the airport made no mention of pollution, attributing the cancellations and delays to “the weather condition.” That has long been the government line: the haze is fog, not fumes.

But increasingly, Chinese know better. . . .

Many people now follow a Twitter feed from the United States Embassy that gives hourly updates on air quality. Gauges on top of the embassy in central Beijing measure, among other things, the amount of fine airborne particles, which are extremely damaging to the lungs. Since Sunday, the air has been rated “very unhealthy” or “hazardous,” meaning that people should avoid any outdoor activity. On Sunday, the particulate measurement exceeded the scale’s maximum of 500, a reading that the embassy once called “crazy bad” on its @BeijingAir Twitter feed.

The fine particles, called PM 2.5 because they are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, make up much of the pollution in the city, but they are not included in the air quality ratings issued by the Chinese government. The published ratings take into account only a larger class of particles (up to 10 microns in diameter) called PM 10. As a result, Beijing officials have announced good or excellent air quality nearly 80 percent of the time over the last two years, while the embassy’s assessment says the air was unhealthy more than 80 percent of the time. . . .

In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the embassy’s air quality Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. The embassy’s data, Mr. Wang said, could lead to “social consequences.” . . .

On Tuesday, the English-languag
e China Daily published an article under the headline “Exposure to Smog Is Severe Hazard.” It said the lung cancer rate in Beijing had increased by 60 percent in the last decade even though the smoking rate did not change.