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Is China's Pollution Testing the People's Patience?

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In a recent speech in Beijing, Zhao Penggao, an official in the powerful National Development and Resource Commission, announced that China is considering setting binding limits on the levels of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), adding, "As pollution is so serious, if we don't do something about it, the public won't agree and heaven won't accept it."

Well, there's no question that air pollution is "so serious." When flights in and out of Beijing airport are routinely grounded because pilots can't see, the pollution is serious; it's serious pollution, too, when a factory in Zhejiang province catches fire but goes unnoticed by neighbors and passers-by for three hours because they can't see the blaze or the plumes of smoke through the sooty air they're accustomed to breathing.

This is what coal combustion from coal-fired power and industrial plants can do to air--with generous help from auto emissions. As coal is burned microscopic particles and tiny liquid droplets shoot into the atmosphere. These particles and droplets are no more than 2.5 micrometers in ambient diameter, or roughly one-thirtieth the size of a human hair. It's precisely this tininess that makes PM2.5 dangerous to human beings; when we breath the air, we inhale the particles, which can then travel deep into the lungs, lodging themselves in sensitive tissue, where they can trigger respiratory disease, tumors, and lung cancer.

And since China consumes more coal by far than any other country in the world, in fact, almost as much coal as the rest of the countries in the world combined (47%), China's air carries a heavier burden of this particulate matter than just about any other place in the world. The World Health Organization's standard for safe air is 25 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter; in January of this year, Beijing's PM2.5 level regularly measured 350 or so (beyond 300 is "hazardous" and constitutes "emergency conditions"), occasionally spiking as high as the mid-900s -- almost a whopping 40 times higher than the WHO's standard.

PM2.5 numbers aside, how bad is this air really?

1) Scientists calculate that breathing the air in Beijing over a 24-hour period is the rough equivalent of smoking three packs of cigarettes.

2) The 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study published in December of 2012 estimates that, in 2010, 1,200,000 people in China died prematurely from outdoor and indoor air pollution.

3) In September of 2012, celebrity millionaire, Chen Guangbiao, began selling fresh air in soda cans, in atmospheric flavors like "pristine Tibet," "revolutionary Yan'an," and "post-industrial Taiwan," at a cost of five yuan or 80 cents apiece. According to Chen, 10 million cans were sold during the last ten soupy days in January.

China's leaders are by no means sitting idly by as the danger posed by the simple act of breathing grows more severe. They are keenly aware of the pollution crisis and have taken measures and set targets to address it, including: restricting car sales and use in large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shijiazhuang; mandating that all new coal power plants be equipped with sulfur-dioxide scrubbers; putting a cap on total energy consumption of 4 billion tons of coal-equivalent by 2015; reducing coal's share of the total energy consumption from today's 70% to 65% by 2015; increasing the share of non-fossil energy to 11.4% of the total energy consumption by 2015 and 15% by 2020; and establishing carbon trading programs in five urban areas and two provinces (the first, in Shenzhen, started up on June 17).

But, to state the obvious here, proclamation of measures and targets is only that, a proclamation. It's their implementation and enforcement that in the end will determine whether they are effective in reining in the devastating pollution. And, of course, there are many obstacles standing in the way--from costs, to corruption, to the competing interests of powerful state ministries, to the preference of local officials for economic development over environmental protection, and so on.

Whether such measures and targets proposed by the leadership in the end prove to be successful or not, the point here is that China's leaders are not in denial about the toll that the country's prodigious coal consumption and car driving are taking on the air. They can't afford to be. In Zhao Penggao's words above, if they do nothing about it, "the public won't agree and heaven won't accept it."

These aren't just empty words in the Chinese cultural tradition. In 1000 B.C., the revered Duke of Zhou articulated the theory of the "Mandate of Heaven"; and, for 3000 years, until the fall of imperial China in 1911, the Mandate of Heaven remained the foundation of political legitimacy. The Mandate worked something like this: the good and virtuous man, genuinely concerned with the welfare of the people, wins their favor and allegiance, and thus is warmly embraced by them as ruler of the realm; the people's acceptance of him is mirrored in Heaven's acceptance of him. Likewise, a ruler who neglects the people, who shows no care for their well-being, loses their support and affection; Heaven, recognizing their dissatisfaction, withdraws its Mandate from him. And, over the course of Chinese history countless rebellions were touched off by charges that the ruler had abandoned virtue, that he had neglected the well-being of his people, and so no longer possessed the Mandate to rule.

Zhao Penggao's cautionary words may well be giving voice to what other officials wonder more quietly: might deadly pollution, the by-product of the country's "rise" in the 21st century, possibly be the seed of the present government's -- and the party's -- undoing? In the past few years people have taken to the streets ever more frequently and in ever greater numbers to protest the building of PX (paraxylene) chemical plants, copper smelting plants, lithium battery plants, waste incineration plants, and coal-fired power plants. They no longer want industries and power plants that poison the air and endanger the health of their families in their own backyards. Their demonstrations are an appeal to government to do what it has been expected to do throughout much of China's long history: to protect the well-being of the people. Officials like Zhao Penggao sense that the stakes are high: that government must successfully rein in the destructive pollution, or risk losing the support of the people -- and the Mandate from Heaven to rule.