I was unfortunate enough to witness it on my first visit to Beijing, a hazy, dull, almost palpable greyness in the air as we drove through the city. Strangely, locals and regular visitors seemed resigned to the often very thick smog as simply a reality of the Chinese capital. When asked about it, the general response from hardened Beijingers came with a shrug: “Some days, this is what Beijing is like”. However, a recent study finds that across China, around 4,000 people die every day due to heart, lung and stroke problems caused by air pollution. According to state media, 60% of the country’s underground water is also polluted, which has worsened water shortages, while acid rain has in some areas resulted in deforestation and crop damage.
These facts paint a bleak picture, which may give the impression that China is an entirely uninhabitable, crowded smoking lounge. While this would of course be an exaggeration in a country with such vast natural reserves, it has been clear for some time that pollution in China is no longer only affecting the nation’s health, but also its economy, and environmental sustainability is increasingly becoming more difficult to manage. It is thus rather ironic that at this point China finds itself fighting back the economic cost of environmental degradation after gaining so much by turning a blind eye.
With China’s pollution making headlines in recent years, the effects of China’s image in this regard have been felt tangibly, with the China National Tourism Administration conceding a drop in foreign tourists to China, including cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen (the number of people visiting Beijing, a city notorious for its air pollution, fell by 15% in the first half of 2013). Aside from tourists, multinational businesses operating in China are finding it difficult to attract foreign workers. In a damning statistic produced by the American Chamber of Commerce, 48% of U.S. organisations expressed “difficulties in recruiting or retaining senior executives to work in China”. With pollution also affecting the agriculture sector, it has caused concerns over food security and safety, while the health costs have of course been enormous.
Though quantifying the effect of pollution on the Chinese economy as a whole can be tricky, a study commissioned by the World Bank found that the cost of air and water pollution in China is a hefty 5.8% of the nation’s GDP.
The Chinese leadership has not been idle in the face of these issues. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last year declared a “war on pollution”, as the country has intensified efforts to distance itself from an over-reliance on coal by investing heavily in other sources of energy. This year, China spent as much as Europe and the USA combined on clean power. It is the largest market for wind power in the world, and has also invested heavily in the building of nuclear power stations. There has also been a noticeable shift from the long-time policy of hitting GDP growth targets at a regional level. Regulators are closing down over-polluting businesses, and local officials are often punished for failing to control pollution. While China may still be a long way from going what would be considered even relatively pollution-free (coal accounts for 70% of energy today, with ambitious estimates forecasting that that it will drop to 30% by 2050), the government’s response has been far from negligible.
With China’s war on pollution underway, a cynic may suggest that the country’s leadership has long shied away from meaningful reform, and left it too little too late, with real action only taken once human cost was translated into economic damage. Nevertheless, at the recent Paris climate talks, China’s behaviour was found to be in stark contrast to the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen, where then Premier Wen Jiabao skipped a session of world leaders and sent a lower level official instead. This year, China’s Head of State, Xi Jinping, attended the climate talks for the first time (instead of the Premier), and has backed up commitments to reduce carbon emissions with its spending on renewable and clean energy.
China’s image as a land of economic opportunity may still be strong, but the aforementioned tangible effects on not only many of its residents’ health, but also its economy and international image, have brought it to a crossroads. After 30 years of impressive economic growth, it cannot excuse pollution as a trade-off any longer. Previous Chinese leaders have presented China as a nation going through the kind of development a heavily industrialised West witnessed in the early to mid-20th century, that is to say, one ridden with pollution. This argument however is growing older and weaker, and China’s leaders seem to have at the very least acknowledged that fact.
In 2013, President Xi Jinping was the first to mention the “Chinese Dream”, referring to the role of the individual in achieving the goal of collective, national prosperity. Ultimately, China’s version of the Dream cannot be fully realised among an urban population which all too often finds itself waking up to see the sun barely visible behind the thick smog. The real question now is, will the government’s efforts to curb pollution be able to mitigate the problems it has caused enough so that it can offer its residents a better quality of life? On the backdrop of continuing environmental reform, the answer will only be revealed in time.
*The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not represent those of The Political Analysis.