Skip to content

Breathless in China

25 March 2013
by Brian Keeley
Click to see the report

Click to see the report

What do you look for in a holiday destination – sunshine and sand, fine food, ancient treasures? If none of these send you scuttling off to Tripadvisor, then how about this: fresh air. That’s what one Chinese province is promising in adverts running on national TV: “Take a deep breath, you’re in Fujian.”

The campaign seems to be working: So far this year, the coastal province has seen a 38% rise in visitors, according to NPR’s Rob Schmitz. “The air is so fresh here!” one tourist told him. “Whenever I go to work in Beijing, I have to wear a mask or else I’ll start coughing uncontrollably. It’s just been terrible lately.”

Indeed. Even by Beijing’s standards, air pollution this past winter has been awful, with the city repeatedly blanketed in throat-choking fog. On one weekend in January, the level of airborne fine particles classed as PM2.5, which are especially harmful to health, briefly rose to almost 40 times above the acceptable limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Beijing is not alone: Less than 1% of China’s 500 biggest cities meet WHO air-quality guidelines, according to the Asian Development Bank, and seven of them rank among the world’s ten most polluted cities. According to the in the world from urban air pollution.

None of this is particularly new – China’s problem with pollution has been apparent for years, but the depth of the murk that descended this past winter does seem to have sparked a real bout of soul-searching. China’s media, for example, has been reporting the problem with unusual frankness –“Beijing’s 225 shades of grey,” says a headline in the China Daily, over a set of photos of the smoggy capital. The leadership, too, has responded, promising increased air monitoring and extra efforts.

The air problems in China’s urban areas bring together two major challenges facing the country, both of which get special attention in the OECD’s latest Economic Survey of China, released ahead of the annual China Development Forum in Beijing at the weekend.

The first is the challenge of making China’s rapidly growing cities more liveable. At one level, this means ensuring that citizens have access to breathable air, rapid transport and so on. But there are other, less visible, issues. Setting environmental problems aside for a moment, one of the most pressing concerns the status of internal migrants, who account for around 70% of the growth of China’s cities over the past few decades. Faced with an ageing population and stagnating workforce, China needs that movement to continue but, if that’s to happen, its cities will need to set out a proper welcome mat for migrants. As we’ve noted before, the hukou registration system means people leaving their home area can lose access to services like health and education. That’s bad not just for migrants but also their children. Many of them – perhaps 36 million – get left behind, and are raised by grandparents; those who do move with their parents to the cities – an estimated 23 million – don’t always have access to great education. Chinese cities and provinces have pursued piecemeal reform of the hukou system, but there are growing calls – including from the OECD – for cities to grant residential permits to migrants; recent reports suggest substantial reform may not be far off.

The second great challenge is, of course, the environment. Smog-filled cities are just one face of the country’s environmental degradation, which also encompasses desertification, flooding, soil contamination and water pollution. China has made some progress in tackling these: For example, sulphur dioxide emissions have declined somewhat, although the country remains the world’s biggest emitter, and there has been a slight improvement in water quality – Shanghai’s floating pigs notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, grave problems remain and, as the OECD report notes, a wider range of weapons needs to be used to tackle them, including market-driven pricing of fuels like natural gas and coal and greater use of pollution taxes and levies. The potential impact of China on the global environmental is so great that, unless the country rises to the challenge, it won’t just be the citizens of its own cities who are gasping for air.

Useful links

OECD work on China

网站 (中文) (The OECD’s Chinese-language site)

China Development Forum

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: