“Air Pollution Eventually Controlled”

Beijing is hosting the APEC meetings this week.  A good excuse to clean up the air a bit!  As reported recently by the New York Times,

Thousands of factories have closed and thousands more have been ordered to reduce emissions by 30 percent. Across a nearly California-sized area around Beijing, tens of millions of people in 17 major cities can drive only on alternate days, depending on whether their license plate ends in an odd or even number. Trucks carrying goods can enter Beijing only between midnight and 3 a.m., affecting deliveries of supplies like furniture and milk.

So, the fewer people hanging around trying to buy milk and newspapers, the better:

The government has also tried to shed some of the city’s 21 million people, declaring an APEC Golden Week, a six-day vacation modeled on the Golden Week public officials get each year around National Day in early October. Public schools have been closed, work has been halted on construction sites, and public services such as issuing marriage licenses and passports have been suspended.

Residents have been joking that APEC stands for “Air Pollution Eventually Controlled,” and have no doubt been rolling their eyes a bit at the lengths the government will go to for a few days of clean air.  Outdoor barbeques have already been banned for some time, but to this inconvenience have been added temporary bans on wedding firecrackers, burning funeral wreaths, and unauthorized incense burning at temples.  APEC is giving residents plenty  of opportunities to display their willingness to sacrifice a bit for the sake of China’s image.

As the writer Yu Hua reminded us last year, these kinds of inconveniences are absurd when we consider where the vast majority of China’s pollution comes from:

It’s clear that steel and chemical plants are the main source of air pollution. The government has in recent years closed down some small privately owned plants, but it’s the large and medium-sized state-owned plants that are the main culprits, and the government has done little to reduce their impact, merely limiting the number of new plants. That’s because new environmental regulations could be detrimental to the economy, at least in the short term, and our leaders’ biggest fear is that economic pain could affect the stability of their rule.

While this may still be true in general, officials in nearby cities have been facing some real pressure to help clean up Beijing’s air.  The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has been carrying out inspections in places like Shijiazhuang (capital of Hebei Province) and found over 30 factories and  nearly 20 construction sites had not cut back their work as required during the lead up to the APEC.  Five factory heads were facing disciplinary proceedings and fines.  And 24 city officials were also being disciplined.

These kinds of very public environmental police actions are somewhat unprecedented, and they speak not simply to Beijing’s desire to project a good image during the APEC summit, but more  importantly to China’s tougher stance toward enforcing pollution standards and to the fact that the MEP is now much more politically powerful than even just a few years ago.

apec-fireworks7UPDATE 11/11/14 – The APEC summit opened yesterday  with a massive display  of fireworks, thereby negating all the air pollution control efforts of the past couple weeks!  The fireworks strike me as more than a bit ironic, given the recent ban on burning funeral wreaths and setting off firecrackers at weddings and for shop openings.

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