A visitor stretches her arms as she looks over the Forbidden City through severe haze in Beijing. Pic: AP.

Chinese officials appear to be finally getting it, reports Asia Sentinel

The announcement Monday by Beijing that the country would allocate RMB 760 billion (US$125.6 billion) over the next four years to clean up the befogged atmosphere over Northern China is an indication that officials in Zhongnanhai have finally begun to comprehend the scope and harm that air pollution is causing China.

There is no denying it is bad, and Chinese authorities appear to have finally begun to stop the disavowals. The US Embassy on Monday began sending out online warnings that fine particulate matter had again gone above 500 micrograms per million, the upper limit of the measurement scale. The embassy last January recorded a reading of 886 micrograms per million against World Health Organization guidelines that say levels of tiny particulates capable of finding their way into lungs shouldn’t exceed 25. At one point a US Embassy officials sent out a tweet that the air was “crazy bad,” earning a rebuke form the government and a demand to stop publicizing the measurements.

The state news agency Xinhua reported Monday that the government had ordered four major highways closed, including those from Beijing to Shanghai, Daqing to Guangzhou, Beijing to Harbin and Beijing to Pinggu, probably through Friday morning.

The new commitment marks a dramatic turnaround from the previous administration, when the government in Beijing insisted that the noxious air over the city was due to “fog” and to “the traditional way of cooking Chinese dishes” and other apparently harmless emissions. For decades, since China began its industrialization spree in the 1970s, belching smokestacks have been a symbol of progress, not poison.

The new attention to the cleanup effort stems partly from the fact that an estimated 50,000 demonstrations took place against environmental degradation in 2012, and probably the same number in 2013. China’s air, water and soil are so polluted that environmental degradation environment is taking a toll on gross domestic product growth and, with the ubiquity of social media, is becoming a political problem. But it also stems from what is a rejuvenated leadership, with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang clearly aware of the multiplicity of issues facing the country and the need to move fast. Officials said that in 2013 several areas had recorded their highest pollution levels since the 1960s.

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