(FT) Public cynicism soars after Beijing ‘airpocalypse’ fails to trigger red alert.
“Beijing springs”, a catchphrase for periods of relative political liberalisation in China, always end badly. The most famous of these, which blossomed in April 1989, culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre.
More than a quarter century after that tragedy, China’s capital has been flirting with an “environmental spring” of sorts. During a glorious run of clear blue skies earlier this year, even Greenpeace reported that the city’s notorious air pollution had taken a turn for the better.
But like so many political springs before it, Beijing’s environmental spring suddenly seems to be fading.
As President Xi Jinping arrived in Paris last week for global climate talks Beijing’s “airpocalypse” returned with a vengeance. The PM2.5 count, which measures the density of dangerous particles in the air, is considered “unhealthy” at 150, “very unhealthy” at 200 and “hazardous” at 300. It soared through all these readings and went “off scale”, topping 500 as China’s president fiddled in Paris.
Despite the very clear and present danger to public health, Mr Xi’s officials did not trigger what would have been the city’s first ever “red alert”, a measure that mandates factory closures, construction stoppages and vehicle restrictions.
Public cynicism surged. Were government officials worried about embarrassing Mr Xi while he negotiated carbon reduction targets with his peers in Paris? Or did they fear the very real economic consequences of a red alert at a time when they are already struggling to prop up growth — or both?
Whatever the reason for their initial reticence, they soon got the message. On December 7, just days after Mr Xi returned to Beijing, the municipal government declared a red alert even though the conditions were not as bad as they had been a week earlier, with the PM2.5 count hovering in the hazardous 300s rather than the airpocalyptic 500s. Strong winds finally helped blow the skies blue on Thursday.
The growing sense that the wind has more bearing on the cleanliness of Beijing’s air than the government’s environmental policies is embarrassing, especially in light of Premier Li Keqiang’s declaration of a “war on pollution” last year.
The last thing Mr Li needs is a credibility gap on another important policy front, especially after a botched stock market rescue and “one-off” devaluation of the renminbi this summer raised questions about the government’s handling of the economy. But that may be exactly what he is confronting.
A few years ago, Beijing residents would occasionally criticise foreigners who wore smog masks, saying they were embarrassing their fair city. Today it is common to see Chinese mothers cajoling their young children to don the hated filters, displaying a lack of confidence that can only worry the ruling Chinese Communist party.
For now there is no evidence that public frustration with pollution is about to boil over, challenging one-party rule. And even if it did, the party-state’s capacity for repression remains formidable. As of Thursday, also international Human Rights Day, some 25 Chinese rights lawyers picked up by police this summer remain in detention.
This week’s unprecedented red alert turned what would have been just another bad air week in Beijing into an international media story. Many have interpreted that as a promising sign that Mr Xi and Mr Li are determined to tackle China’s environmental crisis no matter the reputational or economic costs involved.
But similar things were said in March when Under the Dome , a documentary about pollution, went viral and invited flattering comparisons to Silent Spring, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson credited with transforming environmental consciousness in the US. It did not take long before the government started removing the film from websites and censoring references to it.
Chinese officials’ commitment to tough environmental measures will be tested soon enough. A popular pollution prediction app, Ai Huxi or Love to Breathe, is forecasting another bout of unhealthy air in Beijing by the weekend.China’s-war-on-pollution-is-clouded-with-suspicion-FT-1