Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pollution's Extensive Impact in China

As I wrote in an earlier post, China's pollution problems deserves the regular attention they receive. In that spirit, I will share a few pieces which together show there is no single way to measure pollution's full impact in China.

1. Despite it being the focus of many reports, pollution doesn't only have negative health consequences. For example, Xinhua reported that one famous Chinese director believes pollution is affecting his creative process.
"Cornered by the terrible weather, I have nowhere to go," said Chen Kaige, a frontrunner of Chinese cinema's "fifth generation" and a newly elected member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). "I am unable to focus on my artistic creation."

"I was born and bred in Beijing. I know what the weather was like in the old days," said 61-year-old Chen, describing the current air pollution as "weird," "appalling" and "unbelievable."
Read the article here for more about Chen's hope to "raise more awareness on environmental pollution".

2. However real the problem may be, unfocused movie directors would not likely be considered by many to be one of China's bigger concerns. Large numbers of protests are another story though. In Bloomberg, Xin Zhou and Peter Hirschberg reported how some Chinese government officials are paying attention to a shift in what is motivating "mass incidents":
Pollution has replaced land disputes as the main cause of social unrest in China, a retired Communist Party official said, as delegates to the country’s legislature lamented environmental degradation.

China now sees 30,000 to 50,000 so-called mass incidents every year, Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, said yesterday. Increased use of mobile phones and the Internet has allowed protesters to show their anger more effectively, he said.

“The major reason for mass incidents is the environment, and everyone cares about it now,” Chen told reporters at a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference, where he’s a member. “If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?”
Read the article here for more about the pollution-related protesting.

3. There's another issue related to pollution that can quickly catch the attention of many people: money. Meena Thiruvengadam in The Financialist looked at the economic impact of China's smog:
Various studies have estimated the economic impact of China’s pollution, and several sources suggest that illness, premature death and lost productivity could be costing the country upwards of $100 billion a year.

The World Bank estimated that illnesses and premature deaths linked to China’s pollution cost it about $100 billion – the equivalent of 3 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product – in 2009 alone. A separate study by Greenpeace and Peking University estimates particulate pollution cost four major cities more than $1 billion and caused more than 8,000 premature deaths last year.
Read the article here for more about projected long-term financial costs of pollution in China.

4. Thiruvengadam also pointed out that China's pollution is making it more challenging for companies to convince workers to move there. On a related note, one recent example highlights how the environment is causing some people already living in China to consider whether they should stay there. After 13 years in China, Dutch entrepreneur Marc van der Chijs recently left for greener pasteurs, or at least bluer skies:
Our main criteria for a new home were based on a different lifestyle for the family: a place with more nature around us, with a better air quality and where I would not have to work 24/7 anymore...

I will miss China. I will miss the fast-paced business life, the amazing clubs and restaurants in Shanghai, and the luxury of having staff at home to help you with everything. What I won’t miss is the air pollution (which was the #1 reason for us to leave), the traffic jams and the slow, restricted Internet. Every country has its advantages and disadvantages, and although the balance has shifted a bit recently the advantages of living in China have always outweighed the downsides for me. If it was purely for business reasons I would likely stay, but I have a family with 2 young kids now and I also need to think of them.
Read the full post here for more about a family's move from China to Canada.

5. And bringing the topic back to public health, some possibly relevant context for why Marc van der Chijs mentioned his kids can be found in a policy paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics: "Ambient Air Pollution: Health Hazards to Children":
Children and infants are among the most susceptible to many of the air pollutants. In addition to associations between air pollution and respiratory symptoms, asthma exacerbations, and asthma hospitalizations, recent studies have found links between air pollution and preterm birth, infant mortality, deficits in lung growth, and possibly, development of asthma.
Read the paper here for much, much more.

The Chinese government is most unlikely to be swayed by a single foreigner's departure or Chinese director's complaints. But stifled creative output, citizens protesting, economic losses, foreigners avoiding or leaving China, and health problems for the young are all parts of an immense challenge facing China. Its response, or lack of response, will have numerous consequences. Already, the consequences of pollution are being felt in many ways.


  1. How do YOU feel about living there? I couldn't stand Seoul during the days of "yellow dust" (which is happening now, I am missing it, yay) - and what we got is just a fraction of what looms over Chinese major cities.

    Funny story I once read about yellow dust - the Korean government, in an attempt to stem the problem from the source, sent a bunch of trees over to China to be planted near the border, ostensibly to create a kind of barrier that would catch the dust, or something. Chinese officials took the trees and then just planted them wherever they damn well pleased.

    1. Good question. A post with MY feelings about living in China is in the works.

      I see Wikipedia mentions some trees South Korea gave to China for help with the yellow dust: "These trees, however, were planted only by highways, because the People's Republic of China stated to South Korea that they could receive the trees but that they would decide where the trees would be planted." However, it doesn't appear to provide a source for that claim. If you happen to know of one, I'd be curious to see it.