China’s Ten Hiroshimas a Year

Pollution in the country takes a terrible annual toll on people’s lives, and the government must show it has the will to respond.


Could the Xi Jinping era see a dramatic improvement in China’s environment? The answer must certainly be yes. Technically and administratively, China has the know-how and the government machinery that would let it make meaningful progress to clean up the environment over the next decade. The question is whether its leaders have the political will.

The “crazy bad” air pollution in Beijing paradoxically provides room for hope. The outpouring of anger – and the role played by social media such as Sina Weibo – means that this is an issue the government ignores at its peril.

The air pollution crisis is a health emergency. A 2007 World Health Organization study estimated that air pollution killed about 656,000 Chinese each year. That is equivalent to almost ten times the number of people who were killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Imagine. Almost ten Hiroshimas a year from China’s air pollution.

Many countries have cleaned up pollution only after a dramatic event. Sixty years ago, in December 1952, a deadly smog in London prompted by coal burning killed as many as 12,000 people in days. The world’s first clean air act was passed in its wake and relegated London’s famed “pea-soupers” to history books. A June 1969 fire on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River (“a river that oozes rather than flows,” Time magazine said at the time) jump-started the environmental movement in the United States. The first Earth Day was held the following year and the Environmental Protection Administration was set up 18 months after the Cuyahoga blaze.

Like the United States, post-war Japan saw its headline-grabbing pollution disasters, notably mercury poisoning in Minamata and choking air pollution in Yokkaichi, both of which had the dubious distinction of having diseases named after them (Minamata disease and Yokkaichi asthma). Today, Japan has one of the highest degrees of environmental protection (both legally and in spirit) in the world, but also some of the world’s most sweeping energy-conservation measures.

Pressure from a richer and more assertive population is quickening the pace of Asia’s environmental clean-up. The most recent Greendex survey of 17,000 citizens in 17 countries conducted by the National Geographic Society and research house Globescan in spring 2012, found that Indians and Chinese scored highest in an international survey of environmental attitudes and behaviour.

Chinese worry about food safety was almost off the charts in the survey, with 91 percent reporting that it was a serious concern, underscoring serious popular discontent following a wave of food poisoning incidents, most notoriously melamine-laced baby milk powder. This fear about food outstripped any other concern expressed in any of the 17 countries.

According to Greendex, the Chinese were more concerned about air pollution than citizens of any other country. Significantly, Chinese and Indians were the most confident that their governments and companies were working hard to ensure a clean environment. In short, the environment is seen as an issue of personal safety and well-being in developing countries like China and India. Governments ignore this at their peril.

The good news is that China is already taking significant steps to reduce its energy intensity and to improve energy efficiency. Among the strategic industries in the current five-year plan (2011-15) are clean energy, clean energy vehicles, energy conservation and environmental protection.  Work in all of these areas can be accelerated to improve the environment more quickly.

Most immediately, higher-quality fuel would have a dramatic impact, and the State Council unveiled a number of higher fuel standards on February 6. Getting dirty diesel trucks, buses and boats off the roads and out of the water would make a dramatic difference. Over the medium term, implementing improved energy efficiency standards for buildings would result in better, more comfortable structures that need less coal-powered electricity to light, heat and cool.

Public patience is wearing thin. SOHO China’s chairman, Pan Shiyi, is using his Sina Weibo microblog to push for a clean-air law. He wasn’t the only frustrated member of the establishment.

“I especially want to know if the party secretary or the mayor are in Beijing these days,” wondered People’s Daily senior editor Ling Zhijun. “If so, how do they guarantee they can breathe safely in Beijing?”

Through the crisis, officials mostly just hid out. That won’t work in a Weibo world.

If the Xi administration can seize the moment to show it can provide health and security for people who don’t want their children breathing lousy air or drinking tainted milk, it will have gone a long way toward establishing an enduring legacy and will show that the state is still capable of acting strongly against powerful interests.

At the same time, action on air pollution could help burnish China’s climate change efforts. China has been content to criticize the West for not living up to its responsibilities under the Kyoto Accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions, rather than take a global leadership role. Yet the floods, droughts and other extreme weather events that are occurring as a result of climate change almost certainly will hurt China more than most other countries. So there are some very pragmatic reasons for the country to start taking leadership. It would be a winner at home and abroad.

This openness to tackle air pollution will almost certainly need to rely on citizens to use Weibo and the like to hold environmental and local officials to account. The problem has always been enforcement of China’s environmental laws and regulations. On paper these are of a global standard. In practice are not.  Tackling pollution is most effective when grass-roots monitoring backs up official initiatives.

Economic development isn’t just about growth numbers. It is also about health and security. Citizens need to know that they can trust the milk that they feed their children. The Chinese people need to have faith that the government will respond to the sort of emergency posed by ten Hiroshimas a year.

Originally published in Caixin. Can be accessed here.