Ningxing Zhang: The Policy Mistakes that Led to Terrible Air Pollution in Beijing

Link to Ningxing Zhang’s Twitter homepage

I am pleased to host another student guest post, this time by Ningxing Zhang. This is the 25th student guest post this semester. You can see all the student guest posts from my “Monetary and Financial Theory” class at this link.

Recently, serious air pollution in Beijing forced people has to pay more attention on it. Hazardous smog engulfs Beijing in past several weeks and people had to wear protective face masks if they want to go outside; drivers had to reduce car speed because of poor visibility. It is no exaggerations to say that one cannot see any buildings which are locate more than 50 meters away. “Beijing air quality late Tuesday was 516, or “beyondindex,” according to a U.S. Embassy reading, with harmful particles known asPM2.5 reaching 20 times the amount the World Health Organization considershealthy.”  Compare to that, PM2.5 in Ann Arbor was less than 30 today.

If you still can’t image how serious the air pollution was in Beijing, let’s see this interesting fact: an artist known as Brother Nut has vacuumed the dust in Beijing during past 87 days, and then has used the collection of dust to make a tangible brick! “Nearly everyone in Beijing would have a brick in their stomachs. Older people, maybe five,” “If all of the dust in Beijing was collected together, it would be enough to build the world’s biggest environmental protection bureau.” People in Beijing are forced to inhale a large amount of dust in their lung. The air pollution in Beijing had grown infuriatingly worse in recent years.

The government needs to take responsibility for the serious air pollution in Beijing. In around 2010, the government noticed that air pollution in Beijing was already beginning to deteriorate. But the policies meant to reduce air pollution made it worse. One of the most important actions is moving those factories or industries which can create air pollution out of Beijing area. However, almost all of those factories have been moved to Hebei Province which is the nearest province to Beijing. Shougang (capital steel industry) is one of the biggest steel plants in china. It was in Beijing area, has also been moved to Tangshan in Hebei in2009. It has stopped production altogether in Beijing by end of 2010 and fully moved to Heibei. Government wants to decrease emissions of air pollution by moving polluted factories and industries out of Beijing. However, the result is that pollution actually was not been controlled even a little bit. Air quality in Beijing has continuously deteriorated in last five years without any improvement.

The biggest reason is that Hebei is not far away from Beijing. Moving those polluted factories to Hebei didn’t really solve the problem. After 2010, air pollution problem became very serious in Hebei. If we check the list of most polluted cities in china, five cities of top 10 are from Heibei province. Also, Beijing’s air quality was not improved. Air pollution is not like other kinds of pollution, for example, water pollution, is relative steady and usually just within a certain area; it can quickly diffuse by blow of wind. Thus, air pollution in Hebei can easily move to Beijing and suddenly become hazardous smog. If we also consider about the very high population density in Beijing, which makes urban building’s density in Beijing are also very high, then things are even worse. Once air pollution reached Beijing area, those buildings will “lock” it which is hardly to blow away even with very heavy wind. That is why Beijing’s air pollution is not always that terrible, but on some days it becomes extreme.  

The other contributing factor is the weakness of administration system. Like Shougang, a very large proportion of firms as well as factories which have been moved to Hebei are state-owned enterprises. Those firms are supervised directly by Chinese central government. Before moving, those firms in Beijing are strictly supervised by central government; under the pressure of the National Environment department, they have to carefully control their emissions. However, since they have moved to Hebei, the local government and local environment department are not authorized to supervise those state-owned enterprises, because they have same administration level. The result is that without strict restriction, those firms will increase production without consideration of air pollution. Although after that, central government has noticed the problem and has authorized local government to supervise those state-owned enterprises, the situation was not improved at all. Increasing production of state-owned enterprises will also lead to huge local economic development; of course local government were glad to see that and not really took actions to control air pollution. Compare to economic development, environment protection was usually not that important, especially for local government in china.

Both geographic problem and political weakness made government policies of control of Beijing’s air pollution have failed. Thus, government should carefully make new policies to stop air pollution by fully consideration about its feasibility. Wrong policies will lead to a sequence of serious problem in future.