The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
In China, You Can See and Smell Economic Growth

Beijing has been blanketed by a particularly thick haze of smog this week. Chinese officials call it “fog,” and citizens complain that the US Embassy does a better job monitoring pollution than the government.

Beijing’s leadership at last responded this week, and the Washington Post has the story:

In a rare bow to public pressure, the Beijing local government has begun using a more stringent measure for air quality, and the first publicly announced readings Thursday showed the air was “hazardous” in at least two areas of the polluted capital city.

In a recent Foreign Policy photo essay, Beijing appears very hazy. There is no doubt the city faces a pollution problem, as do many other cities in China. It is is definitely good news that officials finally seem inclined to document — though not yet actually do something about — the thick smog that often hangs over the city. Pressure from the people again played a role in the government’s decision.

A joke about the smog problem is apparently making the rounds in Beijing and on the web: “you can smell China’s GDP in the air.” “The main problem is coal,” says Zhou Rong, who works for Greenpeace. Coal drives China’s economy, and creates its smog. But, as Zhou says, “It is really hard for any Chinese government body to say ‘no more coal.’”

Balancing the conflicting demands of China’s employers, exporters, consumers, bankers, borrowers, affluent urbanites, working poor and on and on is getting harder every day. How much longer a one party regime can manage this increasingly complicated society is one of the world’s great unanswered questions.

In the meantime, it’s good to know that public opinion in Beijing is moving the government, if slowly, toward a more environmentally rational set of policies. Having visited Beijing many times, and experienced its remarkably common and dense “fog” for myself more than once, I’ve been struck by the irony that while the city has some of the world’s most distinctive and interesting architecture, there are many days when you can’t see it. London was once famous for its “pea soup” fogs; those vanished as the city shifted from coal. Let’s hope Beijing follows this path and soon.

Published on January 20, 2012 8:33 pm
  • Alan

    ” London was once famous for its “pea soup” fogs; those vanished as the city shifted from coal.”

    Is not quite correct.

    There was not a shift from coal but a process called Low Temperature Carbonization (LTC)of coal was employed to provide a smokeless fuel in compliance with the 1956 Clean Air Act (UK).

    The result was astonishingly successful.

    There was a message from the UK experience – coal should never be burned in its raw state.

    The authorities in China and elsewhere where smog is a problem should consider investigating the merits of LTC.

  • Jim.

    So is Long Beach / San Pedro harbor still full of big, egg-shaped tanks filled with coal that’s too dirty to be burned in the US that they ship to China?

    It was about the only thing going on those container ships (apart from medical devices, iirc) destined for export to China. Otherwise, the containers full of stuff just came in to the US, and went back out empty.

    Anyone who thinks that the US National Debt is a good way to keep up this unsustainable situation for the few more years it can last should be tried for treason.

  • Kris

    Top of the week to y’all.