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Cracking down on dissent has been a hallmark of Chinese public life. But a population once ignorant of the toxic cost of pollution is speaking out against a government intent on growing the economy. The war on pollution has increased tensions across China, Nathan VanderKlippe reports.

In the village dubbed the birthplace of Beijing's smog, anger is rising into a sky that seems permanently darkened by pollution. At least three times over the past two years, local residents in Songting have gathered to protest at the gates of the steelworks that surround the place generations have called home.

People here once farmed rice, peanuts and corn until, in the years before the Beijing Olympics, their fields were transformed into an industrial forest of pipes, stacks and production lines, after iron and steel companies moved away from the capital to leave behind cleaner air for the Games.

Two-hundred kilometres east of Beijing, they erected a metallic forest of emissions towers that belch exhaust and soot. During one severe episode in February, the air grew so thick that residents could no longer see across their narrow streets and workers got lost on the way home.

Now the villagers are fed up. One of the recent steel-mill protests lasted more than a week. "Every day, more than 30 people gathered there," said Zhao Xiuying, 54, who lives in an old village home that backs out onto a vista of metalworks.

The villagers demanded pollution compensation, but received nothing. So they tried again. "We blocked the coking plant, too," Ms. Zhao said. "But no one fixed our problem."

A villager hauls wood through smog-filled air to burn for cooking in Songting village.

Speaking out can be risky in China, where officials move quickly to crush efforts to organize dissent of any kind. But across China, a population once ignorant of the damage wrought by noxious air has gained a keen awareness of what they are breathing – and a growing unwillingness to accept it.

"Before, people might have just endured. Now, that patience and endurance has worn out," said Ma Jun, China's best-known environmentalist.

"We have seen more demands from people to solve the problem."

Stalled progress has made those demands grow more acute.

Until this winter, a raft of government measures set in place under a Chinese "war on pollution" had yielded annual improvements. Gradually, people were beginning to see more blue skies. But amid a slowing economy, a surge in steel production capacity has been accompanied by waves of thick air that have coated northern China this winter, while southern regions have also suffered unusually bad air.

Air quality worsened in the area around Beijing throughout much of 2016, a trend that has continued this year. Average Beijing air quality in January was among the worst since 2009, the first full year air monitoring statistics are available. The city's February air, on average, was 35 per cent more polluted this year than last.

The public has responded with unusually strong opposition, one that signals a new era for Chinese policy-makers determined to keep the country's economy moving forward, but increasingly constrained from turning to old industrial crutches by mounting public antagonism over environmental issues.

That has increased the tension for China's leadership as it attempts to secure stability, new wealth and blue skies, all at the same time.

"Those things are often irreconcilable," said Alex Wang, an assistant professor at UCLA Law School who earlier served as founding director of the Natural Resources Defense Council China Environmental Law and Governance Project.

He called it a "big kind of game of cat and mouse. And we don't really know how it's going to turn out now, because ultimately they can't throw all the people locally out of work. So there's still tremendous economic pressure on that front. But the environmental side of the equation is basically becoming untenable right now."

In response, frustration is spilling out in lawsuits, pointed parental demands for better protection of students and an indignant outpouring on social media and protests – one dispersed with riot police.

"There's a sense that things are not getting better any more, or are getting worse again," said Lauri Myllyvirta, Beijing-based senior global coal campaigner with Greenpeace.

"Expectations have changed, and people expect improving air quality rather than being happy with the one-off improvement that we saw."

Industrial factories near Songting create such problems for the villagers, such as not being able to even see a car’s length ahead in severe cases, they have protested the operations at least three times in the past two years.

Legal battles

Among those taking matters into their own hands are lawyers, who have sought to test the usefulness of laws introduced in recent years by authorities attempting to reassure the public they are taking action.

"As citizens, we must supervise the government to speed its work and raise air quality to a normal standard as fast as they can," said Beijing lawyer Cheng Hai. He is suing local authorities for failing in their legal duties to protect the environment. He wants a court to order the air to be returned to a more acceptable state in a reasonable amount of time, and has demanded that governments in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province print an apology in local newspapers. He has also asked for $12.50 to recover the cost of his own smog masks.

Inside China's Communist Party-controlled courts, Mr. Cheng's legal efforts stand little chance of success.

But such tactics can raise political pressure on authorities. Three days after Mr. Cheng submitted his suit, China's State Environmental Protection Administration seized power from local authorities over monitoring air-quality stations, after revealing that municipalities had faked readings.

The joint voices of outraged parents have also created change. In January, mothers and fathers lashed out when heavy smog descended on Beijing, demanding better air protection in schools. On social media, one lamented: "Parents are worried about conditions for their children, and wanted to appeal to relevant departments to solve the issue of air purifiers. … Even breathing fresh air has become a luxury."

Such complaints had been dismissed by authorities in the past. In late 2015, the Beijing education commission even suggested it could not seal off schools because doing so might create dangerous levels of carbon dioxide. Other parents have been told air filters would pose a health hazard because children might trip over their electrical cords.

This January, however, officials were compelled into action, going so far as to bring out the environmental protection minister for a late-night media conference to promise more air filters for schools.

Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated smog-fighting promises in his annual state-of-the-union-like work report, pledging "we will make our skies blue again." The Chinese government also pledged new targets for cutting output of coal and steel.

Pollution nonetheless remains a delicate topic. In the southern Chinese city of Chengdu, authorities shut down a central square after activists began organizing a smog protest there last December. Police detained several activists in the same city for staging a silent protest in which they walked around wearing face masks.

But none of it has stopped pointed criticism from pouring out online. As activists were arrested in Chengdu, one person took to social media to say: "We won't put up with this! Take to the streets!"

Commentator Tang Yinghong responded with a scathing polemic, posting an old article from The People's Daily that, in 1971, lashed out at the United States, where "corporations don't care if the people live or die" as U.S. cities grow "thick with smog."

For China to fail to learn lessons from other developed nations and find itself in a similar situation four decades later "is greed without the slightest scruple," Mr. Tang wrote.

Pi Fengqin, a resident of Songting, sorts through some of the medication she takes for heart and brain ailments she says have grown worse in the smog.

Smog savvy

Rising public pressure is a reflection of the degree to which air awareness has taken much deeper root in China. When the U.S. embassy in Beijing began tweeting air-quality readings in 2008, the information was censored and denied by the Chinese government. Over the following years, however, the steady drip of ugly numbers forced change and various levels of government now maintain well over 1,000 air-quality monitoring stations across the country, most of whose results are openly available.

Then came 2015 and the online release of Under the Dome, a self-financed documentary on the devastating health effects of Chinese air by a former state television journalist. It was watched more than 100 million times before being pulled, but its message had already spread widely.

In years past, whenever environmental activist Hoo posted social-media messages about smog, they might get noticed by academics or other activists. "This year, I noticed that many of my classmates and their friends have also been reposting," said Hoo, the pen name for a Chengdu woman who asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisal.

Though the government response has been uneven – censors still delete many of those social-media posts – officials have also been prodded into unusual shows of openness. In Chengdu, for example, the deputy mayor and director of the local environmental-protection bureau have both held smog talk sessions in recent months.

Elsewhere, parents have taken to keeping kids out of school in the worst air. On one particularly bad day last year at a kindergarten class attended by Teddy Wang's daughter in Shijiazhuang, another city known for its smog, only six kids in a class of 36 showed up.

"People are often reminding family and friends to take care and be prepared for smoggy days," said Mr. Wang, a teacher.

Outside wealthy cities

Still, in a country where power is concentrated in a few urban centres, signs of progress can be spotty – and sometimes illusory.

Last October, Chinese authorities ordered a halt to construction on 30 partially built coal-fired power plants with a combined planned generating capacity equivalent to nearly a quarter of Canada's entire electrical sector. It was a dramatic move, intended to show the seriousness of a "war on pollution" declared by the country's leadership. But when The Globe and Mail visited one of those sites in Jiangsu a month later, streams of trucks continued to pour through the front gate. Workers and local residents alike said construction continued apace.

Songting resident Zhao Xiuying’s house lies a short distance from some of the massive steelworks that surround the village. Ms. Zhao and other villagers have protested the stifling smog they often endure.

In Songting village, meanwhile, villagers remain mired in what might be called China's smog caste, segregated by geography, wealth and political influence from the rich cities, whose leaders are newly eager to show progress on pollution.

The most recent factory-gate protest took place last year. After police rounded up protesters and threatened them with detention, the villagers have not dared to stage further action, even in February smog so thick people could barely see a car's length ahead.

Rather than shut down production, local companies have gone to great lengths to keep their plants running. Songting Iron & Steel Company closed down in late 2015, but restarted months later. Last December, officials accused another local factory, Jiujiang Steel Bar and Wires, of attempting to trick inspectors who came to verify emissions reductions.

For Songting's villagers, the effects of membership in the smog caste are amplified by poverty.

Zhao Xiuying's house has no expensive European filters, not so much as a mask. Instead, her back room is stacked with wood and coal that she burns to cook and heat, which only serves to laden the air even more heavily.

Other options, however, are too expensive.

Pi Fengqin, her next-door neighbour, has gone so far as to raise pollution concerns with management of the local coking plant. "We cannot bear this pollution," she told them.

Some complaints have yielded results. When village tap water turned yellow, residents' anger prompted nearby mills to truck in drinking water. (Running water remains bad enough that villagers rarely bathe in winter).

But the air is still thick, and it is not only older citizens who have lost hope.

Zhao Qiang, 28, lists the diseases that afflict neighbours and relatives alike: cancer of the lungs and blood, strokes, heart diseases.

Dried persimmons now frequently turn black, which residents say is due to the thick smog that plagues their village.

Local media have circulated a report documenting Songting deaths from January to October, 2014. Of 25 dead villagers, two died of lung cancer, one of lower respiratory tract disease, 17 of cerebral infarction and three of heart attacks.

"My dream is to have better air, to have green mountains and clear rivers," says Mr. Zhao, who is not related to Ms. Zhao. "There is no need to keep those factories."

He is not alone in questioning the value of the industrialization at their doorsteps.

Labourers at the local steel mills earn just less than $500 a month, but a 30-year-old worker at one of the mills figures his income would be the same if he were still able to grow crops.

When the mills first began construction, each villager received $2,900 as compensation. But "farming is more reliable," said the worker, who did not want his name used for fear of reprisal.

If he had a choice, he said, "I'd like to go back to the way it was."

With a report from Yu Mei