‘War on pollution’ hopes to reclaim Chinese skies

Imagine every breath you take being a hazard to your health. Picture rarely seeing the blue sky because it is blocked by a cloud of pollution hovering over your city every day.

China has been struggling with pollution for years.

This year on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang began the annual Chinese Parliament meeting with a “declaration of war” on pollution.

“We will declare war against pollution and fight it with the same determination we battled poverty,” said Li during a State of the Union style address, according to The New York Times.

“Pollution started when (reformist leader) Deng Xiaoping launched the economic reform in 1979,” said George Guo, professor of political science.

Others in China agreed with Guo.

“The pollution problem started over 20 years ago,” said Fred Engst, professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, in an email interview with The Guilfordian. “As China is becoming more industrialized, the pollution problem is worsening.”

Former resident of Beijing Ann Tompkins taught in the nation’s capital from 1965–1970 and continues to visit China.

She recalled pollution being an issue in the 1960s.

“People used small stoves for their cooking and heating,” Tompkins said in an email interview with The Guilfordian. “These stoves used coal cakes made to fit into the stoves. That meant that, every winter especially, a great deal of pollution could be seen hanging over Beijing.

“On the other hand, there were impressive recycling, reusing and reducing practices,” said Tompkins. “Animal manure was collected off the streets, and human waste was also treated and used as fertilizer. All old metal, cloth and paper … everything was collected and put to another use. My favorite was learning that the padded clothing we wore in winter was recycled into toilet paper.”

These eco-friendly methods, however, could not stop China from becoming one of the world’s most polluted countries.

“The pollution aggravates our respiratory illnesses, prolonging the time it takes to recover from colds,” said Engst.

Smog in the cities forces many citizens to wear protective masks. For others, pollution is a reason to leave China.

“More people are leaving China because of the pollution, and multinationals are having a harder time getting people to take on assignments in China,” said Jerel Bonner, a citizen of Shanghai, in an email interview with The Guilfordian.

Many agree that government officials have consistently attempted to curb pollution.

“China has issued many rules and regulations to reduce pollution since the 1980s,” said Guo. “The government has made the effort to cut emissions from its power plants, factories and cars.”

However, another difficulty arises from the government’s vested interests in the industries causing pollution.

“Steel plants, for example, are one of the main sources of pollution and are also the main source for local government revenue,” said Engst.

“The plant owners often bribe inspectors and make their pollution control devices work only during the daytime when people can see smoke (rising) from their factories,” said Engst. “But during the night, the devices tend to be turned off in order to save money.

“So, during the day, we see white smoke, and in the night, the smoke is black.”

Where, then, lies hope for a cleaner future in China?

“To solve the pollution problem, there has to be a consensus,” said Engst. “To bring about the consensus, (the problem) has to be really bad, making everyone realize the severity of the problem. That’s the way Western countries learned to take pollution seriously earlier.”

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