China’s Environmental Crisis

This semester, I’ve been taking a Chinese Politics course. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this class is reflecting on my time in China and connecting what I’m learning about China’s current events and policies to my own experiences there a year and a half ago.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about environmental policy and environmentalism in China. China’s rapid industrialization over the past few decades and a general lack of pollution control measures have led to serious concerns over air quality. These first became prominent in Chinese politics discussions prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when international concern for the health of the athletes pressured Beijing to implement some pollution-decreasing regulations. However, those were temporary, and the air quality in China’s industrial centers has continued to worsen.

I experienced these conditions firsthand during my time in Beijing. The worst day was one in May, when a combination of pollution and a dust storm blowing in from the north raised the AQI (Air Quality Index) to 896, as my AQI app showed. For reference, below 50 is “good”, and below 100 is “adequate”.

The view from my dorm window on the AQI-896 day

The hazardous nature of the air pollution makes it necessary to wear a mask most days in Beijing, so my navy blue one became a staple accessory.

Discussion about the need for environmental policy reform has increased over the past few years, but because the Chinese government is authoritarian, criticisms of current policy must be cautiously expressed. One common way to call for reform is to frame it in terms of concern for the next generation. This is the tactic used in the 2015 online documentary “Under the Dome”, which acquired 200 million views. Other movements like Not In My Backyard protests are also gaining momentum. With China’s recent key role in the Paris Climate Agreement, we can be hopeful that cities like Beijing will soon have cleaner air and bluer skies.

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