Just outside a small village about 150 kilometres east of Beijing, a shepherd nudges a flock of sheep across a bright green field. Workers tie dried-out corn stalks into great sheaves. Men on mopeds lope down a gravel road. It would be a pastoral scene – if not for the giant steel mill looming in the background.
Inside the mill, Hongwei Iron & Steel, 1,200-degree-celsius heat is used to fashion I-beams, H-beams and other structural steel products, 900,000 tonnes a year in total. These metal bones form the skeletons of buildings across China – as well as elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe. More than anything the villagers could pull from the ground, this is the region’s most valuable crop.
It also contributes an outsized portion of the foul air that has cast an ugly pall over the country – a problem that is literally impossible not to see.
Last month, the city of Harbin hit 1,000 on an air quality index that puts an upper limit on safe air at 25; the smog was so bad city buses got lost on their regular routes. A few weeks ago, LPGA athletes made international headlines for wearing masks to protect themselves while playing in Beijing. And new research suggests the toxic air has serious long-term consequences, cutting life expectancy in parts of China.
The country has responded to this noxious crisis in a fashion becoming its size, with promises of giant sums of money – more than a quarter-trillion dollars – and a breakneck build-up of a green energy sector that is already the world’s largest.
But even this may not be enough to clean up China’s air. That may require a much larger change, to the philosophy that has guided China for more than three decades: economic growth above all else.
That growth has been a salve for the frictions endemic to a one-party state single-mindedly devoted to maintaining its own power. But now, as pollution becomes a refrain in the hundreds of thousands of protests that erupt around China every year and on domestic social media, it poses a major threat to social and political stability – particularly among those who should have benefited most from the boom, the country’s middle class.
“The big challenge in the coming years for the party and the state is not so much economic. It’s not political. It’s quality-of-life issues,” says Jonathan Fenby, a prolific author and the head of research firm Trust Sources.
No less a voice than Li Keqiang, China’s Premier, put it this way earlier this year: “It is no good to be poor in a beautiful environment, nor is it any good to be well-off and to live with the consequences of environment degradation,” he said.
The question is how a country driven – both internally and externally – by expansion, by the idea that “to get rich is glorious,” can find a way to balance wealth and well-being.
It’s the day after Harbin hit 1,000. But in Beijing, where the sun is an orange Ping Pong ball trying valiantly to penetrate the massive haze over the city, the coal industry is just getting ready to party.
Once every two years, the city hosts a coal and mining expo. This time around, the expo’s 30th anniversary, golden script touting “green mining, stunning mines” greets a river of visitors pouring into the National Agriculture Exhibition Centre. Admission is free. And the exhibit, to this crowd, is scintillating: Caterpillar mining trucks, giant metal chain conveyor belts, chemical displays, sales booths boasting about soft-rock consolidation skills. A man whips out his cellphone to snap a picture of an oil cooler.
Hovering over all 850,000 square feet of the show, though, is soot-stained air. It’s not only fouled by coal. Cars are part of the problem: Last year, there were about 114 million of them in China, growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year. On Beijing’s sprawling ring roads, it can take 20 minutes to move a few kilometres. And the fuel vehicles burn here, higher in sulphur and less purified than elsewhere, is roughly the quality of what was pumped at gas stations in North America 25 years ago.