Toxic air shuts down Harbin

This photo taken yesterday in Harbin is all over the Internet, but I couldn’t let it go without posting it. As the article explains, the air darkened and filled with smoke after the city turned on its coal-powered central heating system.

“School was canceled, traffic was nearly paralyzed and the airport was shut down in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin on Monday as off-the-charts pollution dropped visibility to less than 10 meters in parts of the provincial capital.”

Nothing poses a more serious problem to China than its poisoned air and water. It could choke off the country, driving away tourism and casting a dark shadow over its “economic miracle.” A shame. I have been dying recently to get back, then I hear stories from hell from my friends who are still there, and I see pictures like these, and I wonder if I really want to go. A “lifer” I know who was going to live in China until his dying day is now looking for a home in the West for fear his children will be harmed by Beijing’s toxic air.

So many Chinese people have told me that the government, for all its faults, could achieve anything it wanted to once it had its sights on the target. But I don’t think they can solve this problem. There are two options: choke on pollution, or drastically slow down growth. China’s in a box, and really has no choice: the growth must go on if the CCP is to hold onto power. Breathable air takes a back seat. I know, they’re investing heavily in green energy, but that will take years to implement. China runs on coal, and will do so for decades to come. A tragedy.

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

For all the amazing things China and the party have accomplished, their successes have been based on their ability to mobilize massive amounts of money and people. That’s impressive and the difficulty of what they’ve done shouldn’t be minimized, but now that the problems they’re facing won’t respond to massive amounts of spending and in fact spending just makes the problems worse, they’re going to have real trouble with the next phase of development.

October 22, 2013 @ 11:03 am | Comment

“now that the problems they’re facing won’t respond to massive amounts of spending”

Actually, environmental issues are exactly the kind of thing that are most reponsive to large amounts of money being thrown at them. Harbin’s problems could be solved with a simple (but expensive) switch-over to cleaner energy sources like natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables. Or even just using cleaner, low-carbon coal rather than the dirty stuff that is produced locally.

“all the amazing things China and the party have accomplished, their successes have been based on their ability to mobilize massive amounts of money and people.”

It’s pretty hard to find any energy to support this. From 1949-1979 this was China’s growth model, and it produced such wonders as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the “Third Front” project. Looking at was acheived during that period through mass-mobilisation of people and money, and you get things like the Nanjing Yangzi River Bridge, which is falling apart because of the rubbish materials used in its construction.

Instead, China has developed quickly mainly as a result of:

1) Foreign investment due to low labour costs.

2) Export-manufacture.

3) Last-mover advantage.

The main role of the government in fostering this has been to get out of the way of private business, and keeping unrest at a relatively low level. Even latter-day big state projects have rarely delivered what they were supposed to – see the Three Gorges Project for an example of where “[mobilising] massive amounts of money and people” has delivered distinctly mixed results.

October 22, 2013 @ 3:42 pm | Comment

@switch-over to cleaner energy sources like natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables.

FOARP, are they really that clean? I see several examples that they are more damaging than coal. Coal may get a bad rap but they get it done for a country was massive population.

October 23, 2013 @ 2:58 am | Comment

This is not a tragedy but economic determinism at work. Furthermore, Mongolia, South Korea, Japan and California should join together in a class action, locate an appropriate international legal forum (if it exists)and charge the PRC with environmental hooliganism.

Tragedy implies empathy or something similar, and it is a totally misguided sentiment. I’m sure more folk would be voting for schadenfreude, if they weren’t so afraid of appearing non PC (the media disease of the late 20th century) in public forums such as this.

With luck, this will also kill off the Chinese tourist industry and all its cheesy exhibits.

October 23, 2013 @ 5:52 am | Comment

Pollution in China is a tragedy. Whenever people die from poisoned water and air — and they are dying or becoming seriously ill — it is a tragedy.

October 23, 2013 @ 8:09 am | Comment

For more superb photos of China’s environmental tragedy, go here.

October 23, 2013 @ 9:29 am | Comment

“FOARP, are they really that clean? I see several examples that they are more damaging than coal. Coal may get a bad rap but they get it done for a country was massive population.”

The UK managed to put an end to the infamous pea-soup fogs that afflicted our cities (and which are pretty much the same as the smog described in Harbin) through a move away both from coal and from our dirty domestically-produced coal to cleaner coal produced elsewhere. Coal can be clean(er) – using technologies like gasification – but again, it requires investment to install the technology that does this.

October 23, 2013 @ 2:00 pm | Comment

# 6. What is this? Environmental snuff photography.

Be honest Richard. You just love this post.

October 23, 2013 @ 3:55 pm | Comment

@Richard – Damn. It’s become common to use words like ‘apocalyptic’ when talking about the state of the environment in some areas of China, but those recall more the paintings of John Nash (e.g., this one).

October 23, 2013 @ 5:55 pm | Comment

Even the air in Shenzhen seems worse than usual this year – it’s been like LA 30 years ago.

I don’t agree with Richard that the Party has a on/off decision here. It can divert some resources to cleaner air – that would improve the air somewhat and hurt economic growth somewhat – without jeopardizing its monopoly on power. At this point, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of environmental protection – you could tackle just the very worst sources without killing the jobs machine.

October 24, 2013 @ 2:35 pm | Comment

Chinese Lifestyle in the 60′s was the Best for the Environment.

I want to start this post by saying that, I believe that during the command economy era of Mao Zedong, Chinese citizens had very good environmental-friendly lifestyles. Of course, you may say “But the Chinese people were much poorer back than, the society could not produce anything! Of course they had environmental friendly lifestyles!

Well yes, Chinese people back then were indeed poorer. For example, today, we usually take one shower every few days, and therefore waste a lot of water, and water is an unrenewable resource on the planet. Back in the 60′s, many Chinese family in the countryside would go to a local stream, and collect a few buckets of water, and use that water for weeks. Even when I was a child, we used to take bathes only twice a month, and the bathe water is used repeatedly. I would bath first, then my parents, then my grand parents, in the same pool of water. As a result, the Chinese society was a much better water-conserving society than today. Similarly, today there are so many cars and planes in China, using a much higher level of gasoline on the planet.

Another major reason that contributed to a healthy environment back then was that the Chinese people were very unmotivated back then. I use the word “unmotivated” in a positive sense. That is, the Chinese people were not pressured to work hard or to increase productivity. They were very unpressured, very unmotivated. This is of course due to the command economy. In a command economy, being very productive and not so productive would not affect your career too much. So everyone lived a very peaceful, very calm life. And the managers in the factories did not have much authorities over the workers. Unlike the foreign companies today in China, the Chinese managers of all the state owned factories back then could not force their employees to work overtime or work like a slave, otherwise the workers will riot and beat their managers to deaths, as seen during the Cultural Revolution. So if someone back then was a hard worker, it was only because he was a self-ware person, and wants contribute to the productivity of the society.

So basically, in China back then, environmental friendly lifestyle was “out of necessity”, while hard work was out of “self-awareness”. That is, the Chinese people protected the environment not because they were all very self-aware, but because the people had no choice. The Chinese people worked hard not because they were forced to by their bosses, but because they were all very self-aware.

But today, in the market economy, the situation is reversed. Environmental protection became “self-aware”, while work became “necessity”.

Now, a lot of you will undoubtedly say that “the command economy is failure”, and one of the reasons you use is that: “you cannot depend on human “self-awareness” to work. You cannot count on the workers wanting to contribute to the society to work hard, you must design a system so they’ll work hard out of necessity.”. That’s the main reason you say the command economy is a failure.

So to use that logic, in today’s world, environmental protection depends on “self-awareness”. While working hard depends on “necessity”. If that’s the case, then the environmental protection efforts will probably fail in this system. There’s no pressure for people to protect the environment, so why would people do it? Will people be jailed for driving big SUV’s, for showering too often, for using the A/C too long?

What is a true environmental protectionist? A true environmental protectionist should not ever bathe, or at least bathe only once a month, and live strictly the lives of a Chinese citizen during the 60′s. That is, reduce car usage, walk more or bike more, and never take airplanes. Do not buy new clothes until your old ones are completely worn out and unwearable. Do not use any perfume, any lipstisck, any diamond, any leather, etc.

Furthermore, another reason the environmental protection efforts today will fail is because: the main mechanism behind the market economy is “haggling over the price”. But one party is missing from this “haggling”. That party is Nature. Nature produced water, oil, minerals, air, etc. Yet he is not compensated over the usage of these products by humans. If Nature had a mind, he would send a representative to negotiate with humans and would not accept such waste of these resources today. Another missing party is the future generation. They also have a right to negotiate over how to use these resources, so they’ll have some left over later.

Without these two negotiators, of course we would use our resources without worry, because no one is pressuring us to do otherwise, just like no one in the command economy would pressure a worker to work hard.

Of course, common science tells us that it’s impossible for us to continue such wasteful use of energy resources, if we continue this trend, one day, our own survival will become the pressure for us to protect the environment. One day, we’ll be so limited in our resources that we are forced to live the lives of a Chinese citizen in the 60′s. Of course once that day of “resource nearing depletion” comes, there’ll be huge conflicts in the human societies about our lifestyle and our economic structure. I predict that there’ll be a massive world war in which half of the world population may be destroyed. After that war, there’ll be unified world in which the command economy will be practiced everywhere, just like during Mao’s time in China. Under this command economy, environmental protection will again depend on “necessity”, while working hard will depend on “self-awareness”. Of course, in this future command economy, our lifestyles will not be as “good” and “comfortable” as it is today, people will not be as “rich”. There’ll be no cosmetics for women, no fashion brands, no advertisements on TV, no fancy cars, very limtied electricity usage, limtied internet usage, etc. But personally, I prefer that kind of a world.

October 28, 2013 @ 7:23 am | Comment

Yes, under Mao there was no pressure to increase productivity. Just tell that to the millions of victims of the Great Leap Forward, who faced insane pressure to increase the volume of rice and grains.

October 28, 2013 @ 7:44 am | Comment

Politcal reform as a way to reduce pollution?

October 28, 2013 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment