Behind the ‘smogscreen’: Stopgap measures not helping China’s pollution woes
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Behind the ‘smogscreen’: Stopgap measures not helping China’s pollution woes

SMOG is choking China. Again.

Harmful particles embedded in the thick, gray haze that rolled into the country of 1.3 billion last week triggered a red alert warning on Friday. The alert, the worst of a four-tiered colour-coded warning system, is expected to continue today as 40 cities across the country’s northeast remain shrouded in toxic smoke.

This is China’s second time sounding the alert. And it will not likely be its last.

Decades of breakneck economic growth have resulted in China, the world’s second-largest economy, becoming the world’s biggest polluter. The republic is said to contribute at least 25 percent of global carbon emissions while the U.S., the world’s biggest economy, is second place, contributing some 15 percent.

China also records a staggering 1.6 million deaths every year, purportedly due to pollution. Reports in recent days say scores of children in Beijing have been admitted to hospitals due to breathing problems, while waiting rooms are crowded with parents carrying children wearing face masks.

SEE ALSO: China says didn’t invent global warming, vows to fight climate change

A South China Morning Post (SCMP) article last month says scientists from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden believe there are bacterial genes in the smog that could lead to antibiotics resistance. The article says some of these genes could even be resistant to the most powerful last-resort antibiotics, such as those used to treat challenging bacterial infections.

Despite these troubling reports, China remains blanketed.

Every time the haze invades, Chinese authorities would roll out temporary measures such as shutting down heavy polluters and sending children home from schools.

Last week when the red alert was sounded, authorities set out to do just that, issuing limits on the number of cars allowed on the roads, ordering shut over a thousand factories, closing dozens of schools and urging residents to remain indoors.

But according to a CNN report, an academic study has found that temporary fixes, especially those implemented during politically-sensitive events, have not helped China’s smog problem any.

Citing the May study in the journal China Industrial Economics, the international broadcaster said researchers studied air quality in 189 cities before and after China’s parliamentary and top advisory body meetings for the past three years. The study reportedly found that blue skies during these meetings would darken dramatically after, with pollution levels spiking to even more hazardous levels.

SEE ALSO: Beijing orders 1,200 factories shut as smog triggers red alert

This “retaliatory pollution”, according to Guo Feng, one of the study’s authors quoted in CNN’s article, is likely because factories and businesses forced to shutter during the meetings would ramp up production later to compensate for losses.

But retaliation by struggling businesses is not the only chink in the armour in China’s perpetual battle against pollution.

Despite Beijing’s commitment to global anti-climate change efforts (China ratified the Paris climate accord in September), corruption and abuse at the local level, and efforts to quell public dissent about pollution continue unabated until today.

According to local daily Global Times, China’s Finance Ministry confirmed just last week that special funds meant to control the country’s severe pollution had been “misused by some local governments”.

It said CNY219 million (US$31.5 million) was used by county governments in Anhui province for expenses unrelated to a ban on straw burning, while CNY2.57 million was spent to renovate buildings, receive guests and purchase devices that had nothing to do with protecting the environment. In Henan province, local officials reportedly spent CNY7.62 million (US$1.09 million) for 25 waste-compacting vehicles last year that were eventually found to be incompatible with an existing system.

Meanwhile, recent reports say Chinese officials are thinking of classifying smog as a “natural meteorological disaster”, a proposal that has sparked much criticism across the republic, especially among environmentalists.

SEE ALSO: Is climate change real? Yes and here’s how the world is fighting it

The Chinese public, enraged by these reports and what they believe is a non-committal approach by their government to fighting the country’s annual smog problem, are lashing out on social media.

Or at least they are trying to.

Chinese censors, touchy about the sensitive topic, are trying to contain the backlash by deleting criticism posted on social media. A protest that was to take place last week had to be called off when local police prevented participants from entering the venue.

“Many of my posts about smog had been deleted on Sina Weibo,” Chengdu resident Qing Xiaojuan tells BBC Trending in an article.

“I have no hope. I don’t expect anything could be improved.”

Some Internet users, however, refuse to be waylaid by the effort to silence smog talk.

According to the BBC, one Weibo user called “ding cuiling” wrote:

“If everyone in Chengdu uses Weibo and WeChat to express their demands about dealing with smog, then it will become impossible to delete all of them. Once it becomes a hot topic… that will work well.”