China / Society

Endless foul air may motivate legislators

(China Daily) Updated: 2014-02-28 02:17

As we enjoy the precious lull of clear skies after the heavy smog — arguably the worst ever — retreated from Beijing and large swaths of northern China on Thursday, some are already hoping the smog will hit again, and harder, to greet thousands of legislators and officials who will arrive next week for the annual two sessions.

One of the ill-wishers who professed to this "mean spirit" on social media told me she wanted the delegates to breathe in the filthy air day after day, like local residents have, and see for themselves the gloomy blanket of haze over the capital. Then they would be motivated to have serious and meaningful discussions to find solutions to the air pollution woes.

I'm ambivalent about such sarcasm, because I dread reliving the experience. It anguished me every morning when I walked my 5-year-old son, wearing a face mask, to his kindergarten in a suffocating and apocalyptic haze. Yet a part of me agrees with the wish for stronger stimuli to jolt decision-makers into quicker and more effective action.

Fear and frustration have intensified as smog repeatedly shrouded the city and other parts of the country to ever-greater degrees. A sense of despair and helplessness is taking hold as the public realizes a national anti-pollution campaign lacks the strategic coherence to deter the onslaught of smog.

Much hope has been pinned on the government's moves to halt some industrial production and reduce outputs to curb emissions in Beijing and surrounding areas. That was after the city registered record levels of air pollution in January 2013.

But one year on, the local government's response to severe air pollution remains largely the subject of public ridicule.

In the latest incident, members of the public were alarmed by the hands-off posture regarding the setting off of fireworks, a traditional way to celebrate the Chinese New Year and a potential source of air pollution. Fireworks displays climaxed during the Lantern Festival, in the middle of the month marking the end of the holiday, when the air was heavily polluted.

Why did Beijing fail to issue any heavy smog warnings to its citizens and take action to stop the spree — basically, to follow its own anti-pollution rules? Possible answer: public employees were enjoying their days off, too.

The smog last week appeared to have caught officials off-guard everywhere, just like before. As cities scrambled to impose last-minute measures meant to alleviate smog, hapless residents still had to hope for strong winds to clear the skies.

At a deeper level, people still believe many officials lack the will to act quickly and decisively because political careers hinge on economic performance. Growth seems to outweigh environmental protection, which not only can be costly but is thought to slow the pace of local economic growth.

Although the government has vowed to hold top local officials accountable if heavy air pollution continues for three consecutive days as a result of negligence, there has been no report of anyone being punished for the past string of smog.

Experts have become more pessimistic about the prospect of winning the battle for clear blue skies. They foresee chronic air pollution for another 10-20 years as China's urbanization accelerates and clusters of cities continue to mushroom.

But there is no dodging the issue of air pollution as it has quickly shot to the top of the public's list of concerns. We all know smog will strike again in the future. Perhaps we'd be better off, after all, to see it come next week to bring the urgency of the situation home to lawmakers.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily.

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