The Coal Monster: Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act

PHOTO: People wearing face masks walk near the Forbidden City during heavy pollution in Beijing on Feb. 28, 2013.

China's power plants and factories are spewing out toxic emissions and covering the country with smog and grime. For the new leadership, protecting the neglected environment has become a question of preserving its power.

What does growth smell like? What does the biggest economic miracle of all time taste like?

In Guiyu, on the South China Sea, the smell of growth is a caustic, slightly nut-like odor emitted when a computer keyboard is placed on a hotplate. Electronic waste is processed in Guiyu, one of the most prosperous cities in Guangdong Province.

In Xintang, on the Pearl River Delta, it is the bitterly acidic gases that are released when tons of denim material are bleached, dyed and washed. Xintang is the jeans capital of the world, a source of jobs for tens of thousands of people.

In Hainan, a coal and cement town in Inner Mongolia, it is a dull cocktail of soot, chalk and desert sand. Here, growth is something you taste and touch, rather than something you smell. It crunches between your teeth when you are outside.

In Beijing, the capital of the country whose economic success has amazed the world for the last 30 years, the myriad smells and tastes of growth often include a burning odor and an unpleasant aftertaste. It's familiar to many who live in cities whose population is growing by hundreds of thousands a year and whose officials are running out of places to dump garbage.

The images that the world has seen of Beijing in recent weeks are suffocating. In the winter of 2013, the beaming city of the 2008 Summer Olympics has often looked like the setting for a film about the apocalypse. In early January, the air quality index for fine particle pollution rose to the absurd value of about 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter and, last Thursday, the value was above 500, or more than 20 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

For weeks, 600 million people have lived under a layer of smog that covers an area of 1.3 million square kilometers (about 500,000 square miles) and only disappears on occasional days. This is four times the area and more than seven times the population of Germany. Doctors are reporting a rise in respiratory illnesses. In coastal Zhejiang Province, a furniture factory burned down because the air was so thick with pollution that security guards didn't notice the smoke.

A Turning Point

This is what it smells and looks like in the country that is widely regarded as the economic miracle of the globalized world.

No political event or corruption scandal of the recent past has generated as much public attention as this winter's environmental crisis. Chinese bloggers are on a rampage, and even the most loyal government newspapers are examining every aspect of the crisis and attacking those responsible for conditions in China with unprecedented ferocity. The fury over toxic air, food and drinking water marks a political turning point.

On Tuesday, China's National People's Congress convened in Beijing. It is intended as a coronation ceremony of sorts for the new president and his premier -- Xi Jinping, 59, named head of the Communist Party in November, and economist Li Keqiang, 57.

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