Is the Smog Lifting in China?

Inside the Great Mosque of Xi’an. Photo: Tereasa Maillie

When I woke up one spring day in 2009 in Xi’an (Shannxi Province), I could barely breathe. The hostel I was staying at was in a flurry as masks were handed out to all the guests. We were told that we should cancel our plans to travel to the Qing Tombs because the air was bad.

As a Canadian used to clean, breathable air everyday, I was terrified. How, I thought, could these people let it get this bad?

Historically, environmentalism hasn’t been a priority in China, and now the Chinese are paying the price. Everything was covered in filth, and in many cities I could see the air pollution as close up as three blocks away. In fact, nowhere I visited, encapsulated the extreme dichotomy of green spaces versus pollution to me more than the city of Xi’an.

A History of Bad Environmental Policies

One academic idea is that China’s Confucian roots, which promoted man’s use of nature, created a foundation for environmental degradation. According to Professor Tu Weiming of the International Confucian Ecological Alliance, “Confucianism sees humankind to have a deep and cosmic significance.” Some have interpreted this significance to mean that humans can dominate and transform nature anyway they please.

Even in the modern period, the push for industrialization and massive growth by the Communist government in the 1950s and 1960s has had devastating consequences. In 1958, Mao Zedong, first Chairman of the Community Party of China, announced his “Great Leap Forward” plan to modernize China’s economy. While the figures for steel, coal, chemicals, timber, cement, grain, and cotten all increased under Mao’s plan, the plan also caused the world’s largest famine after grain crops failed.

The use of coal for hundreds of years as the major energy source is to blame for the incredibly high levels of pollution.

Paying for the Past

My scare in 2009 wasn’t an isolated incident. In March 2013, a thick blanket of dark grey air loomed over the city of Xi’an as it suffered a sixth straight day of serious smog.

“[We have] temporarily limited the production of seven major coal companies including Xingtai Iron & Steel and Zhongmei Xuyang [Coking Co]. Production [of each of these companies] was reduced 30 percent on average,” said the deputy director of Xingtai’s environmental protection bureau on China National Radio.

According to statistics released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, 74 cities on the ministry’s watch list suffered from “slight” to “serious” air pollution on almost half of the days in November.

People’s Resistance
Protest in Kunming, Yunnan – FT Magazine

People are demanding change even though demand is usually not a word used in reference to people in China. Without fear of government retaliation, they are hitting the streets to protest the lack of environmental  protection done by industry and government. In March 2015, two protestors were detained by Xi’an local police and then released after protests against the local government’s failure to tackle the increasingly severe problem of air pollution.

But these threats and arrests are not silencing people. Chinese Reporter Stephen Vines points out that the Chinese view on environmental protection is changing:

“The latest official State of the Environment report recorded 712 cases of ‘abrupt environmental incidents’ in 2013, up 31 percent from the previous year. Many of these ‘incidents’ are in fact protests, and the level of protest in the current year is, if anything, on the up. Yang Chaofei, the vice-chairman of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, told members of the powerful Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress that environmental protests have been growing 29 percent annually from 1966 to 2011.”

As a result, the Chinese government has committed itself to renewable energy with $290bn going to these projects in five years and a huge investment in nuclear energy. These are signals of a move away from the dominant use of coal power.

A Spiritual Heart Behind the Call for Environmental Protection

Last year, it was reported that the officially atheist country is turning to religion to draw strength and address the countless environmental problems it faces. The secretary general of Alliance of Religions and Conservation was called in for a meeting with the Chinese minister for the environment and the minister of religion, who both said that they were looking to religions to help bring compassion back to the Chinese people. And China’s religions have been quick to respond.

The China Buddhist Association issued a landmark declaration for Buddhists to “obey rules and laws on wildlife protection, to refrain from participating in any killing or trade of wildlife” earlier this year. The hope is that the declaration will cut down on the use of ivory and bones from endangered species.

I asked Mr. Ma, an iman and leader in the Hui Muslim community in Xi’an, if there was a spiritual connection to the new environmental demonstrations. Sitting in the gardens in the Great Mosque, he said that it may be very subconscious, but it is there and a need to protect and nurture the environment comes from the ancient love of nature woven into the Chinese people.

“We are all spiritual beings, be it People of the Book (Islamic, Jews, Christians) or not, our spirits are linked to the world around us. Without it we cannot exist. We know that as Chinese people. Look at the devastation in the name of progress. It hurts our spirit and is an offense to Allah the True Master (Thanks be to God) that we do not take care of what we have been given. But even non-religious people have a spirit and love of air, of water, fire, earth, metal … because it is in our science, medicine, and lives from our history. Now the Chinese people need to speak up, and ask for change, it is in us,” said Mr. Ma.

As I sat back in my hostel days after the pollution died down, I wrote my personal reflections about how being able not to breathe freely impacted my visit. In the garden where young adults were teasing each other and scaring off the bees, I hope that Mr. Ma’s belief that an in-grain love of nature will prevail.

Featured image by John Chandler available on Flickr

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About the Author

Tereasa Maillie is a writer and researcher. She also has a very un-secret life as a producer and playwright. Her work has appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Her previous work includes the history of oil and gas in Alberta, Chinese medicine, First Nations and Métis history. You can find her on Twitter+, Google +, and her blog HistoryMinion.