The Coal Monster: Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act


"We have 140 employees," says Du Yuming, 47, the chief administrator of the environmental protection agency in Wuhai. The work in Wuhai isn't easy, he says, and the reason is obvious. "One out of five light bulbs in Beijing is lit with electricity that we produce up here."

Too Obvious to Ignore

Chinese society is on a monumental migration that is partly caused by the predatory exploitation of nature, but that also exacerbates it. About 500 million people, as much as the entire population of the European Union, have moved from rural areas to China's cities in the last 30 years. Another 300 million, or about the population of the United States, will follow them in the next 15 years. One could pose the question of whether other governments in the world would solve this problem more effectively than China's. However, a migration of such massive proportions has never happened before in the history of mankind.

At any rate, the environmental causes and consequences of this migration are catastrophic. "Our model of urbanization has failed and needs to be fundamentally overhauled," says He Jun, an economist with the Anbound Research Center in Beijing. He is one of the country's critical voices, but he also has the ear of Wang Qishan, one of the most influential men in the new leadership, next to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

The core of the problem, He says, lies in the business model of almost all Chinese municipalities, cities and provinces: They derive their funding from taxes and, to a great extent, from the sale of land. "Because city bureaucrats profit from the sales, a large amount of land has been eaten up in the last 20 years," He says. And since the buyers of the parcels are in a hurry to recoup their investments, construction is occurring at a record pace -- while environmental regulations are ignored.

He doesn't believe that the Chinese are trying to evade responsibility for the price they are paying for decades of waste, says Ma Jun, 44, a leading environmental activist in China. Ma, who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, was more optimistic about the future when he returned to smoggy Beijing than one would expect.

The smoggy winter of 2013, he says, has created something that is usually difficult to get in China: transparency. "Until now, the leadership's basic position was to conceal the consequences of environmental pollution," says Ma. But he notes that this is no longer possible "because the scope of the pollution has become so obvious that any attempt to deny it is pointless." The US Embassy in Beijing introduced hourly air-quality testing, which had a tremendous impact, says Ma. "Now it's time to name names when it comes to the country's biggest polluters."

Of course, that alone may not suffice because China's energy giants have a strong argument on their side: This winter is one of the coldest in decades. Paradoxically, this makes life more difficult for people in southern China than in the north. In the planned economy of the 1950s, China was divided into two heating zones. Communal heating systems were only installed in the regions north of the Huai River. As a result, hundreds of millions of people in the south must now provide their own heat -- with electric heaters, if they can afford them.

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