President Xi the “Tiger-tamer” Could Do Much More to Prevent Environmental Disaster
In light of a recent documentary investigating the smog issues making Beijing “unlivable,” will Xi’s administration use environmental issues to gain more political power or pass legislation that will finally resolve it?
After Chai Jing’s documentary film Under the Dome was shown at end of February, “PM2.5” (shorthand for particulate matter) became the talk of China. Although the state-run China National Environmental Monitoring Center was established in 1980, and monitors water and air pollution daily, it has not really raised public awareness of the environmental issues China is facing. The Center used to measure all particulate matter that was PM10 or less, but in recent years it has also begun to pay special attention to PM2.5, a finer matter that is more harmful to people’s health, with a diameter of 2.5 microns. People can no long ignore this exotic new word, which they generally call “smog”: they cough, have headaches and difficulty breathing, they complain, curse, and also make jokes about it. Here’s an example of a joke you might hear in China: Two doctors chatted in front of a window, complaining about the weather. One said, “Damn it, how can we survive in this smog?” The other sighed, “I have a patient with cataracts today. After the surgery he will think that I have failed him.”
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
People try to deemphasize the crisis with irony and humor, although the reality is visible daily, and nearly tangible. With Under the Dome, investigative journalist Chai Jing brought the people and the government face to face with the smog issue, telling them that a killer is knocking at their door now.
However, official statistics are as mysterious as the matter itself. For example, according to the CNEMC’s real time measurements on April 2, 2015 at 15:00 (measurements are updated every 20 minutes), the air quality in Beijing was excellent, at a PM value of 50. Shanghai, with a value of 75, was good. According to information from the US embassy in Beijing, the value in Beijing was actually 151, which is unhealthy. In Shanghai it was 119, which is also unhealthy.
It goes without saying that Chinese people should trust the U.S.’s data over their government’s.
It took Chai Jing more than a year to research and produce the self-financed film and inform the public about smog, its health hazards, and what can be done to reduce it. Within 24 hours of the film’s launching, it had over 117 million Internet hits. By the next day, that number had doubled.
In Beijing, there is a smog alarm 175 days a year. Chai does not allow her young daughter to go out of the house and breath unfiltered air. Millions of Chinese do the same, if possible: they stay at home with their windows and doors closed, and their air cleaners working day and night to filter particles from the air. Each day, the Beijinger are able to collect a fist-sized grey ball of dust and fine matters from the filters, which would stick to their lungs if their air cleaners stopped working.
Chai visited petrochemical factories and talked to environmental officers. She even visited London and L.A., two cities with severe pollution issues in the past, to find out how the industries and governments in those cities addressed their problems. In China, she found that the main perpetrators of pollution are the coal and petrochemical industries. Car exhaust fumes are also among the worst environmental offenders. Due to the enormous consumption of inferior materials and the lack of oversight, human beings are outrageously abusing nature and the environment. The amount of PM2.5 is alarmingly high in most of the big cities in China. People are exposed to noxious air day after day. Everyone’s in the same boat, but what can we do about it? The journalist asked her countrymen, but did not point the finger to the government. I think that this wasn’t necessary because everyone is already aiming fear, hatred, and derision at the Beijing government anyway.
The fact that the film was released days before the annual session of the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference stimulated the people’s imaginations. Rumors that President Xi Jinping and Premiere Li Keqiang backed the film to knock out two titans, Chinese National Petroleum Corporation and Sinopec Limited, spread like wildfire. Major petroleum companies, in some way, control law-making procedures.
The environmental issue dominated the annual sessions, and is the public’s most pressing concern, along with food security. However, the tsunami-effect of the documentary film alarmed the authorities, who believed that it could be both the fuse and spark for mass protests on a large scale. The government took the film offline only three days after its launch. The propaganda department gave gag orders to the media on reporting any news about the film. People are used to the contradictory behaviors of the authorities. No one was really that surprised that Chai Jing’s film was removed from official websites, and it is still possible to find the film online without too much trouble. Although President Xi and his team use pollution problems as a way to disempower their political opponents, both he and his administration are realistic enough to know that the deterioration of the environment is a ticking time bomb threatening the country’s stability. According to a report by the World Health Organization on World Cancer Day, the number of cancer cases in China is rising “ferociously.” China now ranks first in the world for deaths resulting from lung cancer. Although smoking cigarettes may be the main cause, there is no doubt that severe smog situation contributes.
At the March 15 closing of the third conference of People’s Congress, Premiere Li said: “Our government is determined to set up lots of measures to manage the smog and pollution problems. The most vital task is to strictly implement new environmental laws. The implementation is not a band aid but a solution.”
The new amended law passed on April 24th of last year, at the 12th session of the eighth meeting of the NPC Standing Committee. Called the strictest law in the history of the People’s Republic of China, it began to implement on January 1, 2015. It is founded on a 1989 environmental protection law, which is quite comprehensive but obviously did not prevent the environment’s rapid deterioration. Through corruption, struggle for political power, and especially the philosophy “money = power = paradise,” Chinese society is rushing towards a disastrous future. Will the rulers in Beijing wake up and end the environmental landslide? Theoretically, in an authoritarian system orders are made and quickly carried out. In addition to fighting against corruption, “tiger-tamer” Xi could do a lot more to prevent impending environmental disaster, if he wasn’t cyncial enough to use the smog issue as a political tennis ball. People hate the corrupt government servants who steal their property, but they fear smog, which can take their lives away, even more.