BAI PING End­less foul air may mo­ti­vate leg­is­la­tors

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA -

As we en­joy the pre­cious lull of clear skies af­ter the heavy smog — ar­guably the worst ever — re­treated from Bei­jing and large swaths of north­ern China on Thurs­day, some are al­ready hop­ing the smog will hit again, and harder, to greet thou­sands of leg­is­la­tors and of­fi­cials who will ar­rive next week for the an­nual two ses­sions.

One of the ill-wish­ers who pro­fessed to this “mean spirit” on so­cial me­dia told me she wanted the del­e­gates to breathe in the filthy air day af­ter day, like lo­cal res­i­dents have, and see for them­selves the gloomy blan­ket of haze over the cap­i­tal. Then they would be mo­ti­vated to have se­ri­ous and mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sions to find so­lu­tions to the air pol­lu­tion woes.

I’m am­biva­lent about such sar­casm, be­cause I dread re­liv­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence. It an­guished me ev­ery morn­ing when I walked my 5-year-old son, wear­ing a face mask, to his kinder­garten in a suf­fo­cat­ing and apoc­a­lyp­tic haze. Yet a part of me agrees with the wish for stronger stim­uli to jolt de­ci­sion-mak­ers into quicker and more ef­fec­tive ac­tion.

Fear and frus­tra­tion have in­ten­si­fied as smog re­peat­edly shrouded the city and other parts of the coun­try to ev­er­greater de­grees. A sense of de­spair and help­less­ness is tak­ing hold as the pub­lic re­al­izes a na­tional anti-pol­lu­tion cam­paign lacks the strate­gic co­her­ence to de­ter the on­slaught of smog.

Much hope has been pinned on the govern­ment’s moves to halt some in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion and re­duce out­puts to curb emis­sions in Bei­jing and sur­round­ing ar­eas. That was af­ter the city reg­is­tered record lev­els of air pol­lu­tion in Jan­uary 2013.

But one year on, the lo­cal govern­ment’s re­sponse to se­vere air pol­lu­tion re­mains largely the sub­ject of pub­lic ridicule.

In the lat­est in­ci­dent, mem­bers of the pub­lic were alarmed by the hands-off pos­ture re­gard­ing the set­ting off of fire­works, a tra­di­tional way to cel­e­brate the Chi­nese New Year and a po­ten­tial source of air pol­lu­tion. Fire­works dis­plays cli­maxed dur­ing the Lan­tern Fes­ti­val, in the mid­dle of the month mark­ing the end of the hol­i­day, when the air was heav­ily pol­luted.

Why did Bei­jing fail to is­sue any heavy smog warn­ings to its cit­i­zens and take ac­tion to stop the spree — ba­si­cally, to fol­low its own anti-pol­lu­tion rules? Pos­si­ble an­swer: pub­lic em­ploy­ees were en­joy­ing their days off, too.

The smog last week ap­peared to have caught of­fi­cials off-guard every­where, just like be­fore. As cities scram­bled to im­pose last-minute mea­sures meant to al­le­vi­ate smog, hap­less res­i­dents still had to hope for strong winds to clear the skies.

At a deeper level, people still be­lieve many of­fi­cials lack the will to act quickly and de­ci­sively be­cause po­lit­i­cal ca­reers hinge on eco­nomic per­for­mance. Growth seems to out­weigh en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, which not only can be costly but is thought to slow the pace of lo­cal eco­nomic growth.

Al­though the govern­ment has vowed to hold top lo­cal of­fi­cials ac­count­able if heavy air pol­lu­tion continues for three con­sec­u­tive days as a re­sult of neg­li­gence, there has been no re­port of any­one be­ing pun­ished for the past string of smog.

Ex­perts have be­come more pes­simistic about the prospect of win­ning the bat­tle for clear blue skies. They fore­see chronic air pol­lu­tion for an­other 10-20 years as China’s ur­ban­iza­tion ac­cel­er­ates and clus­ters of cities con­tinue to mush­room.

But there is no dodg­ing the is­sue of air pol­lu­tion as it has quickly shot to the top of the pub­lic’s list of con­cerns. We all know smog will strike again in the fu­ture. Per­haps we’d be bet­ter off, af­ter all, to see it come next week to bring the ur­gency of the sit­u­a­tion home to law­mak­ers. The writer is edi­tor-at-large of China Daily. Con­tact the writer at dr.baip­ing@gmail. com.

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