China struggles to clear its air

SUN JOURNAL

Pollution: It's getting easier to breathe in Beijing, but cleaning up the nation's fouled skies and waters requires difficult trade-offs.

January 17, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- For a 71-year-old who suffers from asthma, Zhang Shifen's address would seem like purgatory. The retired factory worker lives across the street from Capital Iron and Steel Corp., a Mao-era industrial behemoth that has sullied the skies of Beijing for decades.

"Several years ago, this was the most polluted site," Zhang recalled recently. "If you ate outside for a few seconds, the soot would land on your food."

Capital Iron is widely regarded as the worst polluter in Beijing, but in recent years, the air overhead has improved, Zhang and other residents say. With the installation of scrubbers and filters, the smokestacks no longer spew black clouds, and Zhang now enjoys his dumplings soot-free.

The progress at the steel plant is part of a struggle to clean up the air in Beijing, one of the most polluted capital cities on Earth. In the past year, officials claim to have made a dent in what has often seemed an intractable problem.

Sulfur dioxide, which comes largely from burning coal, decreased last year to its lowest level in two decades, according to government figures. Last year the city enjoyed about 38 more days than in 1998 with only light pollution or better, officials said.

The government credits tougher car emissions standards and the conversion of thousands of boilers from coal to cleaner-burning gas for the apparent improvement. Official statistics here are notoriously untrustworthy, but some observers say the relatively clear skies this winter may indicate efforts are paying off.

"I've been pleasantly surprised," says a Western diplomat who follows environmental matters. "There have only been a few days this heating season when the air has been really thick and acrid."

`A turning point'

Yu Xiaoxuan, a senior engineer with the city environmental protection bureau, calls 1999 "a turning point," but it will take at least another year or more to know for sure. Politics was a driving factor in last year's clean-air campaign as the city scrambled to provide clear skies for the nation's 50th anniversary celebrations Oct. 1.

On the worst days, smog is still so thick in the capital that it can render a 50-story building invisible from 100 yards. And even if the air is cleaner, it is unclear whether the municipal government has the money or political will to move forward.

Pollution is one of the biggest problems facing China's leaders. Controlling it while meeting the economic needs of an increasingly demanding public is one of their greatest challenges.

Having lost its ideological grip on the country, the Communist Party has based its right to rule on raising living standards. At the same time, the environmental cost of rapid industrialization is borne by the people who are supposed to benefit from it.

The price of progress has been considerable. Some national studies attribute up to 1 million premature deaths a year to air pollution. Smog in the Northeastern city of Benxi and Yanan, where Mao Tse-tung's army ended the Long March, has been so bad at times that the cities have disappeared for periods from satellite photos.

The country's environmental problems do not stop with its skies. Demand for water is so great in this nation of 1.2 billion people that part of the Yellow River -- known as the "Mother River of China" -- runs dry most of the year. In 1998, reckless logging and land reclamation contributed to the death of more than 3,600 in the worst floods in decades of the Yangtze River (also known as the Chang).

Though nowhere near as dramatic, the effects of air pollution in Beijing are ever present, from the gray mucus when people blow their noses to the hacking coughs heard along the streets. The impact is even evident at the Forbidden City, where acid rain has melted away so much detail that some carved marble banisters resemble water-worn bars of soap.

Over the years, officials have tried several methods to improve air quality with varying results. They have ranged from banning street-corner, barbecue mutton vendors (largely circumvented) to pushing more than 100 factories outside the city center (fairly effective).

The biggest impact, though, may have come last year when the government replaced 21,000 coal-burning heating units in factories, municipal offices and restaurants with gas ones. The city also claims to have fixed the emissions systems of at least 110,000 vehicles last year to reduce nitrogen oxide.

Hindered by corruption

But it's tough to enforce environmental standards in a society where corruption is seen as a convenience. Zhang Kejiang, who sells cable and wire, recently took his van to have its emissions checked and reduced. The mechanic stuck his hand under the hood, twisted a valve and charged him $12.

"If you tighten one valve, you pass," says Zhang skeptically. "It's the money that worked."

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