Air Pollution in China Emphasizes the Complexity of Public Health in a Connected World

Smog in Beijing (photo: AnimaSuri via Flickr)

The past winter was a really bad one for people living in China–the smog in several major cities had reached record level. The issue has created several conversation peaks in China’s popular Twitter-like social network Weibo. Among the frustrated residents of cities affected the most were some of China’s super rich. Pan Shiyi, a billionaire in China’s real estate industry who lives in Beijing, is a prominent online advocate who constantly vents his frustration and anger about the non-breathable air in the country’s capital. After all, unlike other problems that you might be able to get away with money, polluted air is something that no one can escape–rich or poor, you have to breath.

China is well-known for making things happen quickly–the country built the world largest high-speed railway system within seven years; I was speechless to see a sophisticated expressway system erected in my hometown Chengdu in less than a year; it only took two years for the city of Shanghai to complete a brand new airport terminal. However, there is no magic to make the smog go away.

The consequence is not limited to negative coverage in the media. Severe public health issues have been emerging in many Chinese cities as a growing number of people showed up in hospitals to seek medical attention for respiratory conditions, which many doctors believe is related to the toxic air.  The New York Times reports that levels of deadly pollutants this winter were up to 40 times the recommended exposure limit at one point. Parents in Beijing and other cities have taken steps that are radically altering the nature of urban life for their children.

You get the picture–China’s air is too toxic to breath and the country needs to take immediate action to prevent things to get worse. But just like other issues today, China’s air pollution is a complicated problem. It cannot be solved by just shutting down some power plants or forcing people to give up their cars.

An article in this week’s Economist is quite interesting. The magazine reports a coal-export proposal has created controversy on the west coast. Environmentalists are concerned with the proposed four new terminals in Oregon and Washington, which will be used to transport 130 million tons of coal to ports along the Pacific ocean each year. Not so surprising, the coal will be shipped to China.

On one hand, the western media is criticizing China’s old-fashioned energy strategy–the country burns half of the world’s coal each year, but on the other hand rich countries including the U.S. continue to provide cheap but dirty coal to China, encouraging it to prolong its reliance on the filthy fuel. Electricity produced through burning the coal will then be used to manufacture goods to be shipped across the globe. The cycle highlights the difficulties of stopping air pollution in China–under a global context, sacrifices have to be made in order to change the trajectory but obviously keeping the status quo benefits every party in the short run, leaving Chinese people to suffer from the dirty air.

The connection between China’s energy consumption and cheap energy-exporting of the western world exemplifies how today’s public health can be affected by globalization. Thus, a holistic strategy to tackle public health issues like air pollution may work better. For China, some serious changes need to be made to improve air quality in some major cities as these steps will not only make people healthier but  also keep the cities remain competitive in the long run.  For western countries, they need to realize they cannot be just critics but stakeholders of Beijing air. Using cheap coal to exchange for cheap goods may seem a smart deal for now but a sick Middle Kingdom is something nobody wants to see. That said, helping China to make its sky clearer by providing the right technologies and strategies may be a real smart thing to do.

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