China’s Silver Lining

Why smoggy skies over Beijing represent the world’s greatest environmental opportunity
SMOKELESS SMOKESTACKS: Elaborate ductwork at a Sunnsy cement factory shunts heat to a new electricity-generating plant

There will be no shortage of attention for the next big test of China’s environmental positive developments: the Beijing Olympic Games. A year before they were to begin, the economist Matthew Kahn ranked 72 major world cities on overall environmental “livability.” Beijing came in dead last, below Bangkok and Mumbai. In 2001, as part of its agreement to host the Olympics, the Chinese government promised to bring the air quality up to the standards of previous Olympic venues—in addition to making other commitments about reducing press controls and increasing civil liberties for its people. Whatever the government might or might not do toward keeping the political commitments, most people assumed that it would take any steps necessary to make the air acceptable by the opening ceremony, on August 8.

On a trip to Beijing in August 2006, I wondered when the authorities would ever get around to applying the clean-air plan. With each passing month, the woeful quality of Beijing’s air and the implausible nature of official statements increased my skepticism that a normal Olympics could occur. At a press conference broadcast live from Beijing soon after I moved here from Shanghai, last October, Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, said that some events might have to be rescheduled unless things improved fast. My TV screen went black at that point, and his remarks were not covered in the local press. When the world-record holder in the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie, of Ethiopia, said he wouldn’t compete in that event for fear of hurting his lungs, the Chinese media pointed out that he hadn’t yet been named to the team anyway. The Beijing city government was mocked in the foreign (though not the local) media for reporting an ever-improving count of “blue sky days” per month, which had to refer to something other than the actual color of the sky. I myself have been incredulous at the skies I see regularly outside the windows of the apartment my wife and I have been renting here. As a personal chronicle, I take a picture of the sky each day I’m in town, so I can record when, if ever, things really improve in preparation for the Games. (Current plans are to impose sweeping factory shutdowns and other emergency clean-up measures starting about three weeks before the Olympics begin.)

But, as at the cement plant, after I spent a day with the group of more than 20 scientists in charge of measuring the real quality of the city’s air, I found myself less ready to scoff. These were physicists, atmospheric scientists, and other researchers from various institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, or CAS. I met them at the Academy’s Institute of Remote Sensing Applications, which is next door to the main Olympic site on the north side of Beijing.

The sky was a brilliant blue that day, thanks to the frigid wind roaring in from Mongolia. When the wind comes into Beijing from the west, as it did that day, it pushes the city’s haze out toward the sea. But usually it comes from the south and southeast and brings smoke and dust from the hyperpolluted coal and steel regions of Shanxi and Shandong provinces, including the chokingly polluted coal city of Taiyuan, 250 miles southwest of Beijing. The smoke and dust from the south combine with Beijing’s own automotive and factory fumes and hang over the city, trapped by mountains on the western edge. That’s when the air is so dense and dark that spectators on one side of the Olympic Stadium would barely be able to see to the other.

I visited the scientists at a complex of about 15 research centers, plus an apartment block with housing for hundreds of CAS employees. The complex is just next to the Olympic grounds, in an area where new public buildings of all sorts are going up. In a series of briefings and outdoor tours, the scientists laid out the steps they had taken to get honest measures of Beijing’s air problems. They built 1,000-foot-high towers in and around the city to measure pollutants at different altitudes and predict how the wind would spread them. They shot laser beams at reflectors on distant buildings and assessed the return signal to measure what was in the air. They mounted sensors on cars and vans and drove them around the city’s ring roads to see where the pollution was worst. They converted the entire roof of their office building into an open-air lab overlooking the Olympic village. American-made spectrometers measured particulates and pollutants like ozone and nitrous oxide. A satellite dish received a steady stream of data from U.S. geophysical satellites, which was then matched with their local findings. And that was just a start.

I couldn’t judge the machinery, but everything about the people and process seemed serious and scientific rather than political. Therefore I was willing to listen when Liu Wenqing, the director of the Anhui Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics, and Wang Yuesi, of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, said that, according to the team’s readings, the air in Beijing was actually improving. Between 2000 and 2006, the city’s population went up by half, to 15 million, and in about the same time the number of vehicles on its roads doubled, to 3million (apparently the scare stories about a thousand extra cars per day joining Beijing’s traffic are true). But because of tougher auto-emissions standards that took effect in 2006—similar to America’s CAFE rules, but more stringent—and the forced closing of many factories in and around the city, the levels of all major pollutants fell during the same period. (The pollutants included nitrous oxide, ozone, and VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, like benzene.) These were long-term changes, not whatever emergency shutdown measures the government will take just before the Games begin.

The last PowerPoint slide in a presentation that one of the scientists showed me read, “We are confident that the air quality goals for Olympics 2008 will be met in Beijing.” When I asked, “Really?” all eyes turned toward the senior CAS official in the room, a British-trained scientist. “I personally am sure the goals will be met,” he said. Even if the winds are wrong? “Ninety-nine percent.”

I don’t know whether he is right, but what I took from the day was that sophisticated people are honestly trying to do the right thing, in ways official propaganda had not prepared me for. Like England, the United States, Japan, and others before it, China is passing through the environmental-disaster stage of industrialization and beginning to clean up. The difference is that those countries waited until they were rich before they started the process. China is still full of poor people, but for reasons of scale and impact, it cannot postpone cleaning up.

There are signs that Chinese officials at many levels are facing that fact. A recent episode that seemed to underscore China’s stubbornness actually shows the reverse.

In 2004, the “Hu-Wen team” of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had recently come into power with the slogan of building a “harmonious society.” This specifically included greater harmony with nature. A man named Pan Yue, the deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, had been giving speeches about the need to measure the environmental cost of economic growth. (Pan, a former soldier and journalist now in his late 40s—relatively young for an influential bureaucrat—has become the best-known spokesman for environmentalist causes in the government.) The agency, which this year became the Ministry of Environmental Protection, approached the World Bank for help in conducting the first comprehensive survey of the total cost to the country, economic and otherwise, of China’s air and water pollution.

“At first we were reluctant,” a bank official who declined to be named told me. “These measures are always controversial and difficult”—especially any attempt to measure a toll in human lives. But there were signs that progressive elements inside the Chinese government wanted the study for use “as inside argument for devoting more effort to the environmental issue.” The important background point is that even though the outside world tends to see China itself and “the Chinese regime” as a great homo­g-enous bloc, there are ideological, regional, and personal rivalries at every level.

The economic calculations were sobering enough, to say nothing of the health consequences. When the World Bank issued its draft report, “Cost of Pollution in China,” last summer, it said that China’s economic growth rate would be cut significantly—perhaps by half or more—if the government accounted realistically for what Pan Yue called the country’s “overdrafts” on resources. China’s announced growth rate has been 9 to 10 percent each year over the past two decades; the report said that environmental costs could represent between 2.9 and 5.8 percent, which would reduce China’s miraculous-seeming growth rate to sclerotic European levels. Estimating how many people were sick, dead, or deformed would of course be much more controversial.

According to widely reported leaks, the bank concluded that about 750,000 Chinese people die prematurely each year because of pollution. But the Chinese government requested that no total figure be included in an interim version of the report released last year, because it wanted to review the methodology behind the estimate. This move was blasted around the world as yet another sign of the government’s secrecy.

The odd part of the denunciation is that the report itself, which the Chinese government accepted, included every bit of shocking information except that final tally. There were calculations of childhood deaths from dysentery, lost “life-years” because of air pollution, increased hospitalization rates because of lung diseases and cancers, and other grim statistics, including the conclusion that air pollution in all its forms is probably 10 times more damaging to China’s health than all forms of water pollution. It is hard to imagine how anyone who opened the report could consider it a whitewash.

“The press reaction to the report really irritated us,” the bank official said. “It’s not just the Chinese—all governments we deal with are very careful with this kind of life-and-death data. All of us felt that the government was taking the exercise seriously and that it helped nobody to slap them down.” Several people I spoke with at other international organizations concurred. Sure enough, in March, after the hubbub had died down, a report on environmental policy by Xinhua, the state-run news agency, mentioned offhandedly that “a World Bank report said about 750,000 Chinese die earlier due to air pollution every year.”

The Chinese Communist Party unquestionably rules China, but in a more haphazard and uneven fashion than Westerners often recognize. About some things it is as inflexible, intolerant, and oblivious to outside criticism as the worst stereotypes would suggest. These hard-line areas include political challenges to the party’s legitimacy, criticism in the media, and any suggestion of regional separatism or “splittism”—notably, uprisings in Tibet fomented by what the state-run media always refer to, in English, as the “Dalai clique.” About many other matters, ranging from the daily practices of mayors or provincial governors to the deals struck by entrepreneurs, the central Communist government in Beijing is either unable to impose its will or uninterested in even trying. Economic development has been fastest in the parts of the country—mainly the south, far from Beijing—where the central government has been most hands-off.

The varied nature of the government’s approach explains a theme I heard in many interviews. Both Chinese and foreign environmentalists said the government is sending subtle but important bureaucratic signals that it now takes environmental protection more seriously. It is more tolerant of Chinese and foreign nongovernmental organizations working for green causes. It is allowing more of its citizens a chance to defend their environmental rights via lawsuits or organized protests. And it is changing the way it promotes and rewards its own officials, to move them toward an environmentalist outlook. There are still huge pressures in the opposite direction, like payoffs to mayors or governors from land developers. But the new signals are positive.

For example: until recently the curriculum at the Central Communist Party School, where future administrators are trained, included no environmental training whatsoever. In U.S. military terms, this was like the days when war colleges taught future generals nothing about counter­insurgency. That is now changing. I talked with two foreign representatives of nongovernmental organizations—Peggy Liu, of the Joint U.S.-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), and Lila Buckley, of the Global Environmental Institute (GEI)—that have been working with the central and provincial party schools to develop new courses and emphases. Liu, a Chinese American veteran of the tech and venture-capital industries who now lives in Shanghai, started JUCCCE last year as a way of pooling Chinese and international efforts on the environment (its name is pronounced “juice” in English and “ju si” in Chinese, meaning “coalition of thinkers”). The group is developing bilingual Web sites intended to connect Chinese scientists, officials, and bureaucrats with their counterparts overseas, and is trying to connect party officials and factory managers across the country with international advisers.

“This can be like the Human Genome Project,” Liu said, referring to the way researchers around the world used the Internet to share the computational work of decoding the genome, thus completing the project in a decade rather than a century. So far, she said, the Chinese government has welcomed rather than impeded her projects. “The government’s green policies are among the most progressive in the world—seriously,” she told me. “The challenge is to build an environmentally conscious workforce and have it pervade at every level. It’s as if Starbucks were building a whole coffee culture at once.”

GEI, one of China’s few home-grown, locally run environmental NGOs, also trains future government leaders. Chinese authorities keep such a careful eye on NGOs that the very concept of a “non”-governmental organization is peculiar in China—and all the more so since the tradition of civic action is so weak. Still, GEI has been free to conduct traditional conservation efforts such as supporting wildlife reserves; it has promoted wider adoption of energy-saving systems like the one used in the Sunnsy cement factory; and it has brought to the Tibetan hinterland simple, cheap “biogas converters” with which Tibetan villagers produce fuel for heating and cooking from yak or cattle dung. (What about the smell? Buckley, an American in her 20s who is GEI’s only non-Chinese staff member, told me that the villages smell better with the converters than they did before, when the villagers burned the dried dung, and heaps of dung patties polluted their drinking water.)

And GEI has made a major push for a presence in party schools. This has required some delicate maneuvering, since the schools have naturally been slower than regular Chinese universities to bring in foreign experts. In 2006, GEI took two 12-member delegations of party instructors to the United States for three weeks of sustainable-development training at Stanford and Yale and for visits to the World Bank, Resources for the Future, and similar organizations.

By all accounts, the most important change in China’s bureaucratic culture is revising the performance-rating system for officials so they are graded on environmental protection rather than mainly on economic growth. To explain the long-term significance this can have, it is useful to think of the professional U.S. military, which resembles China’s nationwide Communist administrative system in this way: ambitious young officers are rotated through a variety of command posts on their way to the top. In both, the organizational culture is continually reinforced through mid-career training—war college for future U.S. generals, party schools for future ministers and provincial governors. And career success depends heavily on performance evaluations at the end of each assignment, which determine who moves up and who is sidetracked. Shifts in the rating system have a predictable and profound effect on individual behavior.

China’s national laws about air and water pollution are also shifting in an environmentally responsible direction. In China even more than in the United States, law is one thing and reality is another—but in general, I was told, these pollution standards are being taken more seriously than they used to be. For instance, this spring a spokesman for the Shanghai Economic Commission announced the city’s 20 goals for the coming year. Energy conservation and pollution control were at the top of the list.

“My sense is that local political leaders and the heads of big state-owned businesses understand that they really will be held accountable,” Charles McElwee, an American environmental lawyer based in Shanghai, told me. The goals are quite explicit. For example, greater Shanghai is supposed to improve its “energy efficiency”—the amount of energy used per 10,000 RMB (renminbi, the Chinese currency) of economic output—by 4 percent each year. The nationwide goal is to increase energy efficiency by 20 percent and decrease emissions of major pollutants by 10 percent by 2010, compared with 2006 levels. That goal is theoretically still within reach, though last year’s achievements fell short (for instance, energy efficiency improved by 3.3 rather than 4 percent). Last year, the reported level of COD—chemical oxygen demand, a major indicator of water pollution—went down by more than 3 percent nationwide, and the level of sulfur dioxide, a major air pollutant, by more than 4.6 percent. “When I saw those figures, it changed my perception of how things were headed in China,” McElwee said.

In parallel with its own incentives on environmental issues, the government has warily tolerated forms of organized citizen action that it would usually restrict. Even as it has opened the country economically and socially, the government has tried hard to limit independent sources of information and any type of organization outside its control. Yet Greenpeace maintains programs and offices in China, where it has launched an aggressive (by Chinese standards) campaign to persuade consumers not to buy furniture made of rain-forest wood, not to eat shark-fin soup, not to waste energy—and not to buy products from Chinese or foreign companies that undermine these goals. Greenpeace China is quoted frequently in the press—yes, the Chinese press. Environmental exposés are increasingly tolerated, as political exposés are not, and they draw widespread attention.

The rule of law is still shaky in China, but Chinese environmental lawyers have filed and sometimes won suits on behalf of citizens who are sick because of pollution or whose farms have been poisoned. A former journalist named Ma Jun has created the remarkable online “China Water Pollution Map” for his Beijing-based group, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Anyone using the Internet can zoom in on a city or village, click on a lake or river, and see the latest pollution readings—and also which factories or farms are creating the problem. Jane Goodall’s organization has started “Roots & Shoots” programs to teach Chinese children about environmental problems. Early this year, thousands of people poured into the streets of Shanghai to protest the downtown extension of a Maglev train line, which they believed would give off dangerous radiation near their homes. There was a similar mass protest last year about factory pollution in the coastal manufacturing town of Xiamen.

“China’s greatest environmental achievement over the past decade has been the growth of environmental activism among the Chinese people,” Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black, told me in an e-mail. “They have pushed the boundaries of environmental protection well beyond anything imaginable a decade ago.”

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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