Blue Skies in Beijing This Week, Gray Skies Next Week: The Logic of Chinese Pollution

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Chinese soldiers drilling on September 2 for the big September 3 parade. You can’t see the skies they’re marching under, but all reports from Beijing say they are brilliant blue. (Jason Lee / Reuters)

September 3 is a resonant date. For our family, it’s a birthdate: my mother’s, several of her relatives’.  For the world, it’s a martial date. Seventy-six years ago, on September 3, World War II began in earnest as Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany after Hitler’s invasion of Poland. And seventy years ago, more or less (by Chinese reckoning), China celebrated its victory over Japan. Or what it is now calling, on the occasion of a huge parade and military display just about to begin in Beijing, it observed the end of China’s “War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression as well as the World Anti-Fascist War.”

You can follow today’s parade via your favorite China correspondent on Twitter, or read this very interesting discussion on China File, or of course follow the live-stream video on CCTV, or liveblog commentary from the NYT.

For my part, I offer comment on only one aspect of it: the fact that skies above Beijing today are brilliant blue. (Or so it seems from the pictures, and confirmed by the Twitter feed of @BeijingAir.) They are the hue known as “APEC blue” in Beijing, in honor of the environmental quality that is possible when the government shuts down normal activities to prepare for a big international event. I wrote about some of the early efforts in that direction before the 2008 Beijing Olympics here and here.

A reader in Beijing writes on the larger question of air pollution in China. Last month I mentioned the new study suggesting that air pollution in China was causing the premature deaths of 1.6 million Chinese people per year, as part of my larger argument that sustainability in all forms is China’s greatest challenge.

Now a reader in Beijing, Kai Xue, writes in with different perspective. As you’ll see, he argues that China’s approach to pollution in general and gray skies in particular is a credit to the country rather than the reverse.

Here is Kai Xue’s argument. He is an American lawyer of Chinese ancestry now practicing in Beijing. On big-tent principles and in honor of War of Resistance Victory Day, I’ll let you assess it on your own.

Beijing smog has a silver lining, by Kai Xue

Today [September 3, Thursday], there is a grand military parade in Beijing to commemorate the end of World War II. The city will be able to enjoy the public debut of new military hardware under a blue sky day, local parlance for occasions of relief from smog. Much of the city is closed today and in the lead up the region heavy industry was shut down and car traffic severely curtailed by prohibiting either odd or even numbered plates from the road on alternating days.

For most residents there is a desire to see weather like this as the norm. But in considering what it took to have this simple clear day, I must say I have deep praise for Beijing's air pollution.

Xi Jinping, center, and his wife Peng Liyuan greeting foreign dignitaries before the September 3 victory parade. (Screenshot from CCTV livecast)

There's no intent to utter ridiculous contentions. I live in Beijing and get a daily dose of filthy air. Before the weeks before the parade many smoggy days prevailed despite a clear start to this summer. Hopes for a cerulean season and healthy air had been dashed but the enduring smog is clear evidence of virtuous public policy behind continued air pollution in Beijing.

That sounds like a doubtful statement as any silver lining is hard to see when the negatives are overwhelming. Pollutant particles caused by smog are a menace to livelihood, shortening our lives and debilitating young children especially.

But I say in plain honesty that terrible air pollution while taken as mandarin indifference to public demands is to the contrary a manifestation of commitment to a mass middle class by the Chinese political system.

Policy deliberately trades off public health for blue collar jobs. Around Beijing are industries including steel mills and cement plants that are major polluters. About 1 in 10 tonnes of the world's steel output is smelted in Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing. With so much local heavy industry, cleaning the air would start with plant closures that cause concentrated unemployment.

Whether this bargain of clean air for economic growth is a good deal is a fair question but whether it is virtuous public policy depends on the extent decision-makers are subject to or instead insulated from the consequences of self-produced actions.

Beijing is the seat of power in a centralized state. About one third of the thousands who hold junior ministerial rank or higher and many of the very rich reside here.

Regardless of stature, for every Beijing inhabitant air pollution is the most serious public concern. Everyone is exposed whether or not there is an excellent indoor air filter as living under a dome isn't possible. Rich and powerful families like other households have to worry most of all for the health of young children.

In any political system the power elite steer policy but in China authority is capable of greater decisiveness. Therefore little would stand in the way of the power elite from saving Beijing's environment out of selfish interest. Even a case of fair balance could be pleaded by Beijing in favor of relentless adjacent plant closures because the city's air pollution is domestically the worst save one other major city.

Efforts underway to curb pollution in Beijing are already comprehensive. Since 2012 when "airpocalypse" entered the public consciousness, government edict directed mainly at Hebei, shut down coal-fired plants, prohibited new industry, discouraged barbequing, etc. However, air quality improvements have been gradual. More can be done but the power elite don't to avoid causing unacceptably high unemployment in Hebei. This isn't imputing any convenient motive for a seeming policy failure. Double digit factory worker wage growth has been a long term, continuous trend, leaving no doubt that creating a mass middle class is a top policy aim and followed through.

Cynics might say that central authority is not as omnipotent as most assume since like any major economy there are many governmental and commercial interests in competition. Squabbles would mean Beijing's unsolved air pollution is not then deference by the 1% to the needs of the 99% but a disappointing reality of limited bureaucratic fiat. A realistic take of abridged power is generally true but the national capital is an exception. So detrimental is the effect on personal and family health that the seat of power is unified in temptation to resolve by all means. Brooked by no coalition of minions with interests, a paramount consensus to act quickly would have cleared the air by now.

Potential for swift results is evidenced in the derisive term "APEC blue", a reference to the blue skies above the APEC summit hosted by Beijing in 2014. We marveled at the instantaneous improvement in air quality before the summit, the result of a wide ranging order to shut down factories and keep cars off the road. Some asked why is rapid action only exercised for APEC or the upcoming commemoration of the end of World War II on September 3?

Although a diplomatic meeting is removed from everyday life, it's not just a soiree but a platform to project grandeur before foreign nations, enhancing security at the border and growth of economic relations. If Beijing pollution can be waved away by the motion of a scepter but is only done for events of major public benefit, these grimy clouds look translucent, showing the virtue I see in smog.

It's revealed that while every country's leadership professes to act for the common man's interest, this is apparent in China when impenetrable smog darkens Beijing.

We’ll hope that victory on this front also lies ahead.