Category Archives: pollution

“China’s Young and Restless Could Test Legal System”

Stanley Lubman looks at what we learned from Shifang in this WSJ piece:

The Shifang protests are notable because of their size, their success in derailing a major project for environmental reasons and also because they reportedly involved the participation of a significant number of students. The protests may augur both a growing public anger over environmental degradation and a rise of political activism among China’s younger generation – trends that could lead in turn to an increase in legal challenges to the arbitrary behavior of local governments.

Writing in the Journal of Contemporary China, Benjamin van Rooij offers a good summary of the numerous obstacles to effective enforcement of environmental standards in China. Among them: A lack of information about procedures and costs associated with environmental litigation; the unwillingness of courts to accept cases in deference to the wishes of local governments; unresponsiveness from administrative institutions such as petitions offices and environmental protection bureaus; and the willingness of police to use force in repressing demonstrations.

Despite, or perhaps because of, difficulties in litigation, citizen outcries against projects deemed hostile to the environment appear to be on the rise. The newly visible participation of members of China’s young generation in the Shifang events may signal the rise of a new politically savvy generation. As recent story by Financial Times notes, the Shifang protest “has revealed a potentially important shift in the country’s politics: youth were at the forefront of the three-day demonstration, exposing a new vein of activism in a generation seen by many as apathetic.”

Contrary to popular perception inside China, the Financial Times argues that members the so-called post-‘90 generation are more politically active than their predecessors. They tend to be highly educated, and they also face less social mobility than in the two preceding generations. They also have grown up with more access to information, which has heightened their political awareness.

But as prominent Chinese environmental activist Ma Jun noted in a recent interview with business magazine Caixin, protests alone will not lead to long-term resolution of the country’s environmental problems. What’s needed, he says, is “ to liberalize environmental litigation and allow activists to speak in public. Right now, this channel is essentially shut off….the solutions to environmental problems must be legalized.”

Leave a comment

Filed under activism, environment, pollution, protests

“Han Han: The Liberation of Shifang”

CDT has a translation from a post by Han Han on the subject of Shifang, a city in Sichuan which has been rocked by protests after the government initially ignored concerns about a new industrial complex:

I think back to my hometown, the village of Tinglin, in Shanghai’s chemical industries district of Jinshan. I saw how a place of clear waters, quaint houses and clean air became what it is today. In ten years–it only took ten years–the river looked like dye and air smelled like poison. When the government wanted to develop pollution-heavy industries, it told the villagers that the GDP needed to grow. It needed more tax revenue to make everyone happy. Ten years later, quality of life hasn’t gotten any better, but now we’re breathing bad air. The river is a horrible sight, changing colors seven times a week. You can tell which day of the week it is just by looking at the river. The people of Tinglin have chosen to endure all this because the environmental department’s reports show that everything is up to standard. Of course, if you have no limits, anything is standard. But have you seen water so bad that even crawfish can’t live in it?

And so I want to tell the Shifang government that this is not an earthquake, this is not an emergency. People’s requests for improving their environment must be respected. You leaders change every few years. You take on environmental destruction with nice-looking certificates of achievement. If you do well you get promoted, if you don’t you get jail. The best of you emigrate, the worst of you are shot. But none of you actually live in the pollution. Only ordinary people live there. Even though you already stopped the plan to mine molybdenum copper, I think the pent-up public anger this project released comes from a deep-rooted animus that’s about more than molybdenum copper. The proposed plant started it, but now it has become a mass incident. I hope that the people’s resistance can proceed in a rational, smart and safe way. You should seek negotiation. Don’t suppress the movement, don’t give people an excuse to mob, riot, steal, break and loot.

I also want to tell the Shifang government that your decision to disperse the crowd was too sudden and excessive. I can understand that as a local government, you have no experience dealing with this kind of mass incident. Once you see the government offices surrounded by people, and the sign that was over the door broken on the ground, of course you feel annoyed. You look down at the people and then up at the calendar, oh gosh, it’s the Organization’s birthday.* The whole situation feels bad, and it’s happening on the wrong day, and something terrible will happen, and you might lose your position, and so you conclude that you must disperse the crowd before anything else. These people are not even celebrating the Birthday, so fine, you bust it up, they’re not giving you any face. I can imagine the order from the policy-makers: “Settle this as soon as possible.” Then the ones carrying out orders think, “As soon as possible… disperse… got it… dial 0101…” And so there’s no room left for the most basic exchange of words. Could it be that you’re treating the people’s anger at environmental destruction like an epidemic, to be stamped out in one day? No need for talk, just throw the tear gas? Having gone through Wenchuan, don’t you know that the more emotions build up, the bigger the explosion? When people release their anger, even if it’s over the top or started by someone from the outside, can’t you take it on good faith? You’d rather pepper spray them? So this is how the police connect with the people, by crying pepper spray tears with them?

Leave a comment

Filed under environment, pollution, protests

“Tibet’s resource curse”

ChinaDialogue has a big article about what resource extraction is doing to Tibet- while reading, keep in mind that little or none of the profits ever make their way to the people who have lived on the land for generations:

Chinese geologists exploring Tibet in the 1960s criss-crossed the plateau, searching for the mineral wealth they assumed must be abundant, but had not yet discovered. In remote alpine deserts, the geological expeditions came upon lakes which were slowly drying-up due to long-term climate shifts. High on the empty Chang Tang plain in western Tibet, they found lakes already dry, their beds a shimmering salt pan.

Testing the various salts, the geologists discovered a scientific curiosity. One lake in particular, Drangyer Tsaka (Zabuye), held an extraordinary concentration of lithium salts; measurements of 660 parts per million (ppm) of lithium were recorded. Only in the Atacama Desert of the Andes had such levels of lithium been discovered.

In the Tsaidam Basin of northern Tibet, geologists found not only salt lakes, but also oil, asbestos, lead, zinc; and in Tso Ngonpo (Qinghai Lake) they found minerals that could be used for developing submarine-based nuclear missiles.

So valuable were the lakes in the Tsaidam Basin that a railway was built more than three decades ago, enabling tanker wagons to haul millions of tonnes of oil to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The availability of so many minerals in one basin, as well as gas fields discovered and exploited later, provided the raw materials for a major industrial base. Golmud, formerly a camel-train stop on the long haul between Lanzhou and Lhasa, became an industrial city, with petrochemical plants that produced plastics, fuel, fertilisers and explosives. The salts of the many salt lakes were essential inputs.

Around the turn of this century, China began to separate the mixed salts of Tsaidam Basin lake beds on a large-scale. Separating naturally crystallised sodium, potassium, magnesium and lithium salts requires heavy-duty toxic solvents (such as isobutanol and chloroform), known to cause cancer. Since the Qinghai authorities were keen to industrialise their province – known for its poverty, remoteness and cold climate – land-use controls and environmental regulations were not a priority. From the provincial capital Xining, spreading out to the famous Kumbum Monastery, industrial plants took up land, pouring effluents into nearby streams. Potash and magnesium plants were built and expanded in Gormo, Xining and along the connecting railway line.

Obtaining lithium, magnesium and potassium from salt lakes remains a dirty business. Environmental regulations are ignored, particularly in western china, where mineral extraction pollutes the air, soil and water. The sexy green electric car of the future may not be as green as people hope. Not only does li-ion battery manufacture consume a lot of energy, but given the solvent extraction methods used, there is a major risk that lithium will leak into water supplies.

But the environmental impacts of mineral extraction will intensify in the Tibetan Plateau, in arid areas where pollutants accumulate in basins with no external drainage. Both the Tsaidam Basin and Drangyer Tsaka lithium salt lakes cannot naturally dispose of toxins generated by solvent extraction, and so waste products stay where they are dumped, or evaporate into the thin air and intense heat of a Tibetan summer. No longer will lithium extraction be confined to Gansu, as in the past.

The first large-scale lithium extraction factory in the Tsaidam basin is due to begin operation soon according to Metal Bulletin, and even Drangyer Tsaka is now scheduled to produce thousands of tonnes of lithium annually. It may not be long before your latest handheld passport to mobile connectivity is powered by Tibetan lithium.

Leave a comment

Filed under environment, mining, pollution, Tibet

More on Beijing Pollution

Today, a continuous stream of reactions to the air pollution that blankets much of Beijing and the surrounding provinces- first, from Evan Osnos:

Air-quality monitors at the U.S. Embassy spat out hourly Twitter readings of “hazardous”—levels that have never been measured in the U.S., even during forest fires. And on Sunday night, the needle hit its limit—500—a point beyond which it could render only the muted plea, “beyond index.” (As Beijingers recall, a programmer on the night shift initially set it to report ultra-high readings as “crazy bad” before diplomats intervened.)

Through it all, the Beijing environmental bureau described the air as “light pollution.” Or, poetically, “fog.”

It is an old issue that returns each winter as the cities’ furnaces roar back into use to deliver central heating, and temperature inversions settle over the North. But more than ever this year, Chinese citizens have taken note of the absurdity. Online, people are debating the best model numbers of 3M masks to buy, and pooling orders for air purifiers. (“Sometimes, I suspect that what we’re breathing isn’t air, but politics,” one person wrote.)

Year by year, it is getting harder to drum up the fog, even though an article in the Global Times quoted the city’s air-pollution chief, Yu Jianhua, in a tour de force of myth-making: “If you compare the air quality on an annual basis, it is actually improving.”

Next, from Tom Lasseter:

The distance between the official line on Beijing’s bad air and a reality that’s as obvious as the sky above is proving to be a challenge for the Chinese government. As with several other high-profile cases this year, the Internet in China, though constrained by censorship, has made traditional propaganda approaches more difficult.

When public opinion amplified by online forums swells to levels that call for “guidance” by the Communist Party of China, officials are caught between contradicting earlier statements or continuing to insist on explanations that sometimes border on the nonsensical. Missteps in either direction run the risk of being criticized at an online speed that outstrips the censors’ ability to delete.

State media said that the country’s largest online retail site, akin to eBay, sold more than 30,000 cotton and respiratory masks on Sunday alone, with more than 20,000 of them going to customers in Beijing.

Using software that allows them to circumvent online censorship programs, some users have posted the embassy numbers on Sina Weibo.

One Sina user said Tuesday, echoing a common frustration on the site: “No one believes in the government, people now choose to take the index from the embassy. How pathetic.”

Finally, James Fallows has more, including pictures showing just how bad it is, and notes that even Chinese media sources are finding it impossible to deny:

Global Times (think Fox News for Chinese nationalists) shockingly uses the word “smog” in a headline on Dec 6, instead of the conventional “mist,” “fog,” or “bad weather.” The story points out that 200 flights had been cancelled in Beijing as of mid-day because of the air quality.

Leave a comment

Filed under censorship, media, pollution, public health

“Holding Our Breath”

Getting on Twitter today I was immediately struck by dozens of posts by Beijingers, who have endured astonishing levels of air pollution recently. Apparently it’s gotten so bad that the uncensored air quality feed provided by the American Embassy can no longer detect it- it’s off the charts. Absurdity, Allegory and China has a great post about this:

I have my curtains drawn and my office door shut and an IQAir filter cranking away. But that’s still not enough to keep the filth of Beijing air out. Periodically I look out the window, but then quickly draw the curtains again. I just don’t want to look at what is happening outside. It’s disgusting. This past Friday it snowed, perhaps the most depressing snow I’ve ever seen. I thought, “If there were enough of it, would you let your child play in that?” I remember those early life moments of scooping up a handful of snow, eating it, rolling in it, coming home frozen wet and red. That wouldn’t happen in this place. @bokane expressed it best: “Signs you’ve been in Beijing too long: you look out the window onto a snowy morning and just assume that it’s ash of some kind.”

On November 22 I went to the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Airport to meet a friend who was to stay with us for a week. At 11:00 AM when she arrived the air was ‘Very Unhealthy.’ According to the air quality readings tweeted nearly every hour by the U.S. Embassy – much to the chagrin and protests of the Chinese government – the PM2.5 reading was 273. (PM2.5 is the invisible particulate matter that works its way into your lungs and does the most damage, a standard international measurement that the Chinese have, though they refuse to make their readings public. As we left the airport I told her that the smog would probably clear over the next few hours since the wind was predicted to rise. And rise it did, taking all the nastiness south that day. By 15:00 it was a ‘Good’ 39 and the wind was ripping.

The days between then and now have not been all that different: a few ‘Good’ and ‘Moderate’ periods, though mostly ‘Unhealthy’ and above. The exception has been the period we are in at the moment. As I write the PM 2.5 readings have been pegged in the ‘Hazardous’ zone since yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, 12-04-2011; 16:00; PM2.5; 406.0; 438; Hazardous, more than 19 hours ago. A few hours after the air quality entered the ‘Hazardous’ zone it reached the unmeasurable range (what some have unofficially deemed “Crazy Bad”) @ 12-04-2011; 19:00; PM2.5; 522.0; 500; Beyond Index , which is somewhat akin to WWI trench warfare air. How far ‘Beyond Index’ was it? There’s no way of knowing that, though if the CN.gov folks do, they aren’t about to tell anyone. In fact I’m surprised they haven’t sniped the measurement machine on top of the U.S. Embassy, yet. They hate it.

But this isn’t about us, China. This is about the Chinese. The majority of people who are affected by this insane level of pollution are your parents and grandparents. But it will all catch up to you later.

My city is bad enough, I can’t imagine living in Beijing.

Leave a comment

Filed under censorship, environment, pollution, public health

“Under Public Pressure, Beijing Opens up Air Quality Monitoring Center”

They’ve gotten blasted for years for claiming that the air is fine and dandy while the skies look like a mixture of Mordor and Geidi Prime. Now the WSJ reports that the authorities in Beijing are giving in:

Beijing authorities have opened their air quality monitoring center to the public following a wave of online demands for them to measure pollution more accurately by adopting standards used by the U.S. Embassy, according to state media reports.

Beijing authorities have come under mounting public pressure to improve their air quality measurements since 2008, when the U.S. Embassy began using Twitter to publish contradictory readings from its own monitor which measures smaller air particles that experts say cause most damage to the lungs.

Beijing officials admit that they currently only measure larger air particles, and say they plan to adopt the more sensitive standard in the future, but they dispute the accuracy of the Embassy’s readings and say a series of particularly smoggy days at the end of last month were caused mainly by fog, rather than pollution.

My city isn’t exactly a bastion of fresh air… but pictures from Beijing blow away the worst days I’ve ever seen here.

Leave a comment

Filed under environment, pollution

“Think China’s air is breathable? Think again”

I know the air in my city isn’t that great, but every time I get on twitter and see posts from people in Beijing I’m filled with joy from not having to live there. From The Globe and Mail:

Living in the Chinese capital, there are days – like today – when you can quite literally taste the air. Not in that pleasant, catch-a-snowflake-on-your tongue way that Canadians know. It’s a sensation closer to licking warm metal.

So when the World Health Organization released its list of the cities with the best and worst air pollution, I was surprised not to see Beijing near the top of the list.

Then I looked a little closer at the methodology. In most countries the WHO relied on its own data. But for all cities in China, the number of reporting stations is listed as “N/A” for not applicable. All data was provided by the China’s own National Bureau of Statistics.

Anyone who lives in Beijing knows that the government here lies to its citizens every day about the quality of the air. (That may sound harsh, but I write as the father of a 19-month-old asthmatic.)

Today, the United States Embassy, which has a monitoring station on its grounds in east Beijing, broadcast via its Twitter account that the air quality was “hazardous” between the hours of 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. today, with an air quality index of 344 on the scale of 1 to 500. (Or at least 500 – a level 25 times higher than WHO guidelines – used to be considered the top of the scale. The rating in Beijing surged to an unheard-of 562 one coal-tinged morning last November, prompting the embassy staffer who writes @BeijingAir to famously declare the air “crazy bad.”)

But China doesn’t acknowledge these numbers, or indeed the idea that the air quality here could be hazardous for anyone. The state-run Global Times newspaper said air pollution was only “moderate” Tuesday in Beijing. Unlike the U.S. Embassy Twitter account, it gave no measurements of ozone or PM2.5 particulate matter to back its assertion.

A 2009 U.S. Embassy cable made public by Wikileaks suggests that the Chinese government – rather than worrying about what the U.S. Embassy air quality monitors were discovering – was instead nervous that the data being made available on @BeijingAir might cause public anger.

Indeed, the information the Embassy’s assertions that the air usually wobbled between “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” were being seized upon by anxious Chinese Internet users and even some domestic media outlets as proof that air pollution was far worse than their government was telling them.

Next time you hear someone complaining about the American EPA, please refer them to the difficulties of breathing the air in China.

Leave a comment

Filed under censorship, pollution, public health