The Coal Monster Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act

China's power plants and factories are spewing out toxic emissions and covering the country with smog and grime. For the new leadership, protecting the neglected environment has become a question of preserving its power.



What does growth smell like? What does the biggest economic miracle of all time taste like?

In Guiyu, on the South China Sea, the smell of growth is a caustic, slightly nut-like odor emitted when a computer keyboard is placed on a hotplate. Electronic waste is processed in Guiyu, one of the most prosperous cities in Guangdong Province.

In Xintang, on the Pearl River Delta, it is the bitterly acidic gases that are released when tons of denim material are bleached, dyed and washed. Xintang is the jeans capital of the world, a source of jobs for tens of thousands of people.

In Hainan, a coal and cement town in Inner Mongolia, it is a dull cocktail of soot, chalk and desert sand. Here, growth is something you taste and touch, rather than something you smell. It crunches between your teeth when you are outside.

In Beijing, the capital of the country whose economic success has amazed the world for the last 30 years, the myriad smells and tastes of growth often include a burning odor and an unpleasant aftertaste. It's familiar to many who live in cities whose population is growing by hundreds of thousands a year and whose officials are running out of places to dump garbage.

The images that the world has seen of Beijing in recent weeks are suffocating. In the winter of 2013, the beaming city of the 2008 Summer Olympics has often looked like the setting for a film about the apocalypse. In early January, the air quality index for fine particle pollution rose to the absurd value of about 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter and, last Thursday, the value was above 500, or more than 20 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

For weeks, 600 million people have lived under a layer of smog that covers an area of 1.3 million square kilometers (about 500,000 square miles) and only disappears on occasional days. This is four times the area and more than seven times the population of Germany. Doctors are reporting a rise in respiratory illnesses. In coastal Zhejiang Province, a furniture factory burned down because the air was so thick with pollution that security guards didn't notice the smoke.

A Turning Point

This is what it smells and looks like in the country that is widely regarded as the economic miracle of the globalized world.

No political event or corruption scandal of the recent past has generated as much public attention as this winter's environmental crisis. Chinese bloggers are on a rampage, and even the most loyal government newspapers are examining every aspect of the crisis and attacking those responsible for conditions in China with unprecedented ferocity. The fury over toxic air, food and drinking water marks a political turning point.

On Tuesday, China's National People's Congress convened in Beijing. It is intended as a coronation ceremony of sorts for the new president and his premier -- Xi Jinping, 59, named head of the Communist Party in November, and economist Li Keqiang, 57.

The burden of their projects is overwhelming. The new leadership wants to transform China from a primarily agrarian and industrial country into a high-tech and service nation. At the same time, it intends to boost affluence and promote urbanization in order to come to grips with the country's wealth disparity and population growth. If they achieve all of these goals, Xi and Li will leave behind a different China.

The challenge and the need to break with the past are especially evident in environmental policy. About 750,000 people die as a result of air pollution in China each year. Many of the country's rivers are so polluted that authorities do not permit residents to even touch the water, not to mention use it to irrigate fields.

Fruit and grain grown in the country's contaminated and over-fertilized soil contains massive amounts of pollutants. They also unsettle consumers in the West, who now import a large share of their tomatoes, apples and other food products from China.

Xi and Li now seem to have recognized just how serious this problem is. For months, they have invoked China's "beautiful environment," a phrase Xi used in his inaugural speech in November. "We must act," says Li -- and he clearly means it. Indeed, China's environmental policy has developed into a question of national security -- not because the government is particularly farsighted, but because its power is on the line.

The success or failure of Beijing's new leadership will likely have a ripple effect well beyond China's borders. "If Xi's dream for China's emerging middle class -- 300 million people expected to grow to 800 million by 2025 -- is just like the American Dream (a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all) then we need another planet," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in October 2012.

Poisonous Policies

China has become the world's largest CO2 polluter, emitting close to 10 billion metric tons of the greenhouse gas each year. The environment crisis is no longer a Chinese tragedy; it's a global fiasco.

"I hope the day will come when all you can see from Tiananmen Gate is a forest of tall chimneys belching out clouds of smoke," Mao Zedong said in 1949, as he gazed out at Tiananmen Square. Mao subscribed to a simple image of humanity and nature and, as with everything in his life, he was ruthless in putting it into practice. Between 1958 and 1961, he had millions of small blast furnaces built to press ahead with Chinese steel production.

The project was accompanied by the "Four Pests Campaign," in which the Chinese -- from 5-year-olds to the elderly -- were told to destroy rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows, which were allegedly harming the young People's Republic by eating grain seeds.

To kill the birds, citizens kept flushing them out until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. But then people died, perhaps in even greater numbers. Some 30 to 45 million perished in a famine, which was partly triggered by insects that would otherwise have been consumed by sparrows.

Mao's successor, the reformer Deng Xiaoping, broke with China's planned economy. He gave the leaders of individual provinces the authority they needed to develop their regions on their own. But what proved to be a blessing for the economy became an assault on China's natural environment.

Deng's principle, which helped the country advance to become the world's second-largest economy, still pretty much applies today: growth at all costs. The provinces are so conditioned to constantly report new record figures to Beijing that a colossal discrepancy emerged last June. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the country's carbon dioxide emissions amounted to 7.7 billion metric tons in 2010. But when researchers from the University of Leeds added together the figures reported by the provinces, they arrived at 9.1 billion tons. It still isn't clear which of the two figures is correct, but the difference alone is more than twice Germany's annual CO2 emissions.

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