Inside Story

Choking China

As thick smog envelopes China's northeast, we ask whether the government is acting fast enough to contain the crisis.

Last Modified: 22 Oct 2013 10:48
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China's northeastern Heilongjiang province is experiencing heavy pollution-induced smog with schools forced to suspend classes and the Harbin city's airport shut for air traffic.

It's the existential threat to the stability of the government ... of the Communist Party, because it's not just air pollution, it's water and also soil pollution. Almost a hundred years of industrialisation has been compressed in about 30 years. So the situation is now reminiscent of the dark days of Victorian England. The reference to 'dark satanic mills' is very much alive nowadays in many [Chinese] cities and not just Harbin.

Andrew Leung, an independent China analyst and economist

Other parts in that region have also experienced severe smog, including Tangshan, two hours east of Beijing, and Changchun, the capital of Jilin province which borders Heilongjiang.

The air quality index showed levels of 1,000 in some parts of Harbin, where some 11 million people live. A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the World Health Organisation recommends a daily level of no more than 20.

Levels as high as in some parts of Harbin are primarily responsible for causing lung cancer and asthma. And many believe the air pollution has cut life expectancy by an average of five-and-a-half years in the north.

""The WHO currently recommends a peak exposure limits up to 50 which is one-tenth of what has been measured in Harbin.... There is really a long way to go to reduce that [level] .... If we reduce that level by 20 percent you are still at 400 [air quality index] …. We also looked at all the latest studies that point towards the increased risk of lung cancer at levels even well below the current guidelines standards for exposure," explains Kurt Straif, the head of monographs at the cancer research unit for the World Health Organisation.

The World Bank estimates 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.

In the past, the Chinese government had announced plans to tackle pollution problems but little progress has been made.

To tackle pollution, Beijing's city government for example, plans to reduce coal consumption by closing down four coal-fired power plants before 2015. It also wants to reduce car emissions, which make up more than 22 percent of the city's air particles.

In a nation-wide scheme, the government is also offering a total of $818m to regions that make the greatest improvements in reducing pollution.

But will that work? What will happen to China if the government does not tackle the problem? And what are the consequences for people and their health in the current crisis?

Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Andrew Leung, an independent China analyst and economist; Huang Wei, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace; and Kurt Straif, the head of monographs at the cancer research unit for the World Health Organisation.

"Unlike Beijing most of the cities in China don't have any emergency plan tackling air pollution. And most of the cities don't have a long-term plan of resolving the problem .... The government knows that the true root of the air pollution problem is the massive coal consumption in China right now, but unlike the Beijing ... area we don't see the northeastern part of China is implementing any kind of the coal consumption reduction target. This will be a bigger problem and this will make the air pollution even harder to be cleaned up if the northern part of China doesn't take any action to curb its coal consumption."

Huang Wei, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace


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