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.PlayEd Jones/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH China's Toxic Smog Cancels Flights, Shuts Factories

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.

The burden of their projects is overwhelming. The new leadership wants to transform China from a primarily agrarian and industrial country into a high-tech and service nation. At the same time, it intends to boost affluence and promote urbanization in order to come to grips with the country's wealth disparity and population growth. If they achieve all of these goals, Xi and Li will leave behind a different China.

The challenge and the need to break with the past are especially evident in environmental policy. About 750,000 people die as a result of air pollution in China each year. Many of the country's rivers are so polluted that authorities do not permit residents to even touch the water, not to mention use it to irrigate fields.

Fruit and grain grown in the country's contaminated and over-fertilized soil contains massive amounts of pollutants. They also unsettle consumers in the West, who now import a large share of their tomatoes, apples and other food products from China.

Xi and Li now seem to have recognized just how serious this problem is. For months, they have invoked China's "beautiful environment," a phrase Xi used in his inaugural speech in November. "We must act," says Li -- and he clearly means it. Indeed, China's environmental policy has developed into a question of national security -- not because the government is particularly farsighted, but because its power is on the line.

The success or failure of Beijing's new leadership will likely have a ripple effect well beyond China's borders. "If Xi's dream for China's emerging middle class -- 300 million people expected to grow to 800 million by 2025 -- is just like the American Dream (a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all) then we need another planet," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in October 2012.

Poisonous Policies

China has become the world's largest CO2 polluter, emitting close to 10 billion metric tons of the greenhouse gas each year. The environment crisis is no longer a Chinese tragedy; it's a global fiasco.

"I hope the day will come when all you can see from Tiananmen Gate is a forest of tall chimneys belching out clouds of smoke," Mao Zedong said in 1949, as he gazed out at Tiananmen Square. Mao subscribed to a simple image of humanity and nature and, as with everything in his life, he was ruthless in putting it into practice. Between 1958 and 1961, he had millions of small blast furnaces built to press ahead with Chinese steel production.

The project was accompanied by the "Four Pests Campaign," in which the Chinese -- from 5-year-olds to the elderly -- were told to destroy rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows, which were allegedly harming the young People's Republic by eating grain seeds.

To kill the birds, citizens kept flushing them out until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. But then people died, perhaps in even greater numbers. Some 30 to 45 million perished in a famine, which was partly triggered by insects that would otherwise have been consumed by sparrows.

Mao's successor, the reformer Deng Xiaoping, broke with China's planned economy. He gave the leaders of individual provinces the authority they needed to develop their regions on their own. But what proved to be a blessing for the economy became an assault on China's natural environment.

Deng's principle, which helped the country advance to become the world's second-largest economy, still pretty much applies today: growth at all costs. The provinces are so conditioned to constantly report new record figures to Beijing that a colossal discrepancy emerged last June. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the country's carbon dioxide emissions amounted to 7.7 billion metric tons in 2010. But when researchers from the University of Leeds added together the figures reported by the provinces, they arrived at 9.1 billion tons. It still isn't clear which of the two figures is correct, but the difference alone is more than twice Germany's annual CO2 emissions.

A Massive Environmental Nightmare

The world may be wringing its hands, and it may be dawning on the leadership in polluted Beijing that it's time to change things. But, every day, the black monster out in the country's coal belt eats its way more deeply into a landscape that, in Inner Mongolia, already looks like the surface of the moon.

Bao Que, 27, drives his 40-ton truck back and forth between the Hainan opencast mines and the Xilaifeng coking plant eight to 10 times a day. It's a torture for him, his truck and the world around him, which stinks of sulfur and ammonia. "I've been doing this for two years," he says. "My contract runs out in a year and, by that time, the truck will be worn out. Besides, no one can stand it here any longer than that."

Excavators dig into the dusty heaps piled up along the edge of the kilometer-wide coal crater. Then they fill Bao's truck. The excavator operator is still pressing down the load by slapping it with a shovel as Bao starts to pull a tarp across his dump truck. In this business, every minute and every ton counts.

The trucks have dug thigh-high grooves into the earth. Another truck overturned while Bao was in the mine. The load, 45 tons of gravel, fell to one side while the fuel, 150 liters of diesel, leaked out on the other side, where it joined the bilious green brake fluid and seeped into the earth. "It was his own fault," says Bao. "The truck was three times overloaded. Mine? No more than twice."

There are probably few places on earth where nature is abused quite as much as it is in the northern Chinese coalfields. China covers 70 percent of its energy needs with coal, consuming about as much as all other countries combined. When there is a clear view, it's possible to make out the Yellow River while flying over Inner Mongolia -- a waterway that has been reduced to a trickle after being tapped by dozens of mines, power plants and factories for cement and chemicals. In a report entitled "Thirsty Coal," the environment organization Greenpeace warned of water scarcity and an environmental disaster along the course of the Yellow River.

A comparison between the opulent marble building that houses the state-owned Shenhua Group in Yinchuan and the environmental agency's office in a run-down neighborhood of Wuhai, 150 kilometers away, is all it takes to know who is going to determine what happens on the upper reaches of the Yellow River for the foreseeable future.

"Our base has access to a surplus of fresh water," Shenhua, the world's largest coal company, claims on its website. The group employs 211,000 people and operates 62 mines and power plants with a total capacity of almost 43 gigawatts.

"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.

For years, citizens in China's south have pushed to be placed on equal footing with those in the north. But the shock of the current winter has weakened their arguments. How can they demand more energy consumption, say critics, when the strain on the environment is already almost unbearable today?

Global Blame

In recent weeks, Europeans and Americans have noted with horror how the Chinese are poisoning themselves. Don't the images from Beijing, they ask, reinforce the impression that China's leaders have made for years at international climate negotiations? An authoritarian country that walks over corpses for the sake of growth, and that arrogantly ignores the warnings coming from the West, where emissions have been declining for years?

The contradiction beneath this perception is obvious in Hong Kong, the outpost of the First World in China. The self-confident citizens of the former British crown colony have fought with their pro-Beijing leadership for years over air quality.

Kwong Sum-yin, 29, is sitting in the offices of the environmental organization Clean Air Network (CAN), under a humming air filter attached to the ceiling. She turns around her monitor and points out the most recent annual diagram of air-quality levels in the city. "Our numbers are miserable," she says. "The air in Hong Kong is three times as polluted as it is in New York, and twice as polluted as in London."

Many Hong Kong residents, says Gloria Chang of Greenpeace, are concerned about the clouds of pollution that blow over from the Pearl River Delta in China's heavily industrial Guangdong Province. This is understandable, she notes, but it is also questionable. "Since 1997, we have moved all of our heavy and textile industry to the mainland," she says. "It's obvious that we also bear some of the responsibility for the pollution from over there."

The position Western industrialized countries take toward China is similar to Hong Kong's attitudes about the Pearl River Delta. One of the reasons the carbon dioxide emissions of leading industrialized countries have declined in recent years is that a large share of polluting production has been outsourced elsewhere -- and much of it to China.

The size of this share is one of the most complex and controversial questions in climate economics. The answer isn't just important for China's government, but also for governments, producers and consumers in the United States and Europe.

A working paper from the University of Wollongong, in Australia, attracted attention in September. The authors estimate that more than a third of China's CO2 emissions in 2007 (the most recent year for which figures are available) could be attributed to exports. In their consumption-based model, the responsibility for each ton of carbon dioxide is shared by the country in which it is emitted and those countries in which the produced goods are consumed.

Glen Peters, of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo (CICERO), believes this number is too high. He and an international team of authors estimate the contribution of exports to China's carbon dioxide emissions in 2007 at no more than 25 percent. And owing to growing domestic demand, that figure may have declined since.

However, the West also benefits from this domestic demand, including German companies. China has become the most important market for German automakers, with Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche selling almost a million cars there in 2012.

Many are being driven in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, contributing to the smog. Foreign cars are even more noticeable in industrial cities, such as Hainan, Xintang and Guiyu.

Trading Pollution for Prosperity

In Guiyu, Li Qiong, 51, is sitting in front of a small electric furnace on which she is heating discarded computer circuit boards. She works quickly. Using tongs, she removes the circuit boards from a basket to her left and places them on the hotplate. Then she waits until gray smoke is produced and the silvery solder melts. She removes the circuit board from the furnace, scratches off the bits of metal and tosses the still-smoking circuit board into a basket to her right. Li is paid by the unit and earns about 5,000 yuan, or roughly €600, a month. "I have two daughters," she says. "I support both of them while they attend the university."

A few buildings away, three men hoist laundry baskets full of chopped up bits of circuit boards from one drum of water to another. The pieces of plastic become cleaner as they are moved from one drum to the next. When the workers go home at sunset, they empty the drums into the canal in front of the building.

"Our city has become prosperous," says Ye Weitang, a 69-year-old farmer. "But we can no longer use the groundwater to irrigate the sugarcane fields." It doesn't matter, though, he says, because he now irrigates his fields with water from the tap, which comes from far away. He can afford it, he says.

Wealth and filth apparently go together.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan