Saturday, January 20, 2018

Where is Beijing headed?

As I write these words, Beijing is blanketed by a layer of thick air pollution. The concentration of PM 2.5 per square meter is currently 212, way above any recommended limit, visibility is reduced and the unmistakable smell of Beijing smog lingers in the air. Fortunately my air purifier keeps the air in my living room relatively clean, but if I go outside I'll be forced to wear a mask.

All the same, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection has informed us that the capital's air quality has been far better this winter compared to previous years, and for once the improvement they talk about has actually been fairly obvious. It is a simple fact: the air pollution in Beijing over the last couple of months has been much lower than normal. Oh, there have still been days like today, but they have been the exception rather than the norm. Waking up to a clear blue sky has been a more common experience than waking up to the view of a grey post-apocalyptic nightmare outside the window. While winter is usually the worst season for air pollution in Beijing, this year November and December have actually been less polluted than the summer and autumn months were.

The authorities have hailed this relatively smog-free winter as a great success in their drive against air pollution, but it has not come cost-free. One of the main reasons for the improvement is a policy that the government has been implementing all over Northern China this winter: 煤改气 or "coal-change-gas", as the Chinese media has named it with typical conciseness. The aim of the policy is to switch coal with natural gas as a source of heating for people's homes. Coal-powered heating is the main reason that pollution in Northern China gets so bad every winter.

The policy has been implemented with great strictness. Slogans have popped up in Northern Chinese villages warning that those who burn coal will be arrested, and in Shaanxi some construction workers were detained for five days for starting a fire with coal to keep warm while working over night. The problem is that not all houses are yet fitted with gas-powered heating systems, and a lot of areas have also seen shortages of natural gas as everyone switched to gas heating at once. The result is that millions of people have been left without heating in the rigid winter, with temperatures dropping well below freezing at night time.

The coal bricks used for cooking and heating in Chinese homes

Although figures are disputed, it is clear that quite a lot of people have been suffering from the lack of heat. About a month ago, photos of children from a primary school in Hebei province having class outdoors in their coats, because the feeble winter sunshine was still warmer than their unheated classrooms, were shared on the internet and provoked an uproar. I have also come across a folk rhyme shared in different version across the internet, describing the inconvenience and hardship faced by ordinary families with no heating in their homes. It contains some pretty subversive lines. One version ends with the angry words 官下令,民买单。乡亲们,别喊冤,咬紧牙,熬东关,敢苑哪个王八蛋?, translated more or less as "the officials deliver an order, the people pick up the tab. Fellow villagers, don't complain about injustice, endure the winter, which bastards are you going to dare blame for this?"

While this policy has been tough on peasants who would certainly rather have warm homes than clean air, it has obviously delivered benefits to the better-off social classes in the cities who do not have to worry about their homes being heated, and whose concern about air pollution has grown enormously over the last few years.

On a related note, a large-scale operation to kick poor migrants out of Beijing started a couple of months ago. The campaign was sparked by a fire that broke out in a cheap building in the city's southern outskirts, killing 19 people. 17 of those killed were members of working families from other parts of China, living in cramped conditions in an unsafe building. The fire gave the authorities the pretext to start a wide-scale campaign of demolition of "illegal structures", which has led to the eviction of hundreds of thousands of migrants. Families were often only given a few days, and in extreme cases a few hours, to vacate their flats and either find a new place to live or go back to where they came from. This was in late November, during an early and especially rigid winter, with temperatures hovering around freezing in daytime.

The campaign has also affected people beyond the circles of poor migrants doing unskilled labour. Young graduates living in cheap housing blocks have been evicted, and the hip hutongs in the city centre have also been targeted. In the middle of November British writer James Palmer, who was living in a hutong next to Houhai lake, right in the middle of Beijing, tweeted that he had been given three days to move out by the police, because the "illegal structure" he lived in was going to be demolished. Still, the demographic most heavily affected is clearly the unskilled migrants and small-time traders living on the city's outskirts, who in many cases are finding themselves forced to leave the city.

All this is clearly related with the authorities' stated goal of capping Beijing's population at 23 million. What this campaign has in common with the one to ban the burning of coal is that it favours the interests of the comfortably-off and of the native Beijingers (many of whom have become prosperous simply by owning properties or selling their land in the expensive capital) at the expense of the working poor and those who live in small towns and the countryside. One campaign drives out, or in any case strongly inconveniences, unskilled workers from other parts of China living in Beijing, but in the long run it will create a less congested, cleaner and more gentrified city with less slums on its outskirts. The other one forces peasants across a large swathe of Northern China to go cold, but it pleases the well-off and the educated living in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities who don't have to choke on polluted air the whole winter, relying on air purifiers and flimsy face masks for some protection from the damage the smog does to your health.

One might almost say that the government is doubling down on championing the interests of the richest 20% of the Chinese population (often referred to as the "urban middle class" in the foreign media), while pushing policies that risk antagonizing the rest of the country more openly and aggressively than ever before. This is obviously a huge over-simplification, but it has its explanatory power.

The only thing is that the campaign to kick out the migrants from Beijing appears to have backfired. The sight of families getting thrown out into the cold with little or no notice has caused a wave of anger and indignation in the Chinese public, even in the more privileged sectors who run no risk of getting kicked out themselves. As always in China, this anger is being expressed in the only place it can be, in other words on social media. But this doesn't make it any less real. In a country where people often don't seem to care about things that don't affect them personally, and may even support heavy-handed policies as long as they are not directed at their own group, this wave of solidarity with the downtrodden is really quite unusual.

Given how much importance the leadership attaches to making the public perceive them as benevolent, paternal, and only tough when they need to be, it seems like this time they may have miscalculated. Some might argue that it was just the local authorities that went too far, but I can only imagine that the central government must have set the tone. The decision to evict people in such a rush, with so little notice, may seem illogical, but I suppose that it was done to prevent the possibility of people getting organized and putting up resistance. There was actually at least one mass protest in a Northeastern suburb of Beijing, which was reported in the international media but not within China.

After a few days the government went into damage limitation mode, and Beijing's mayor was sent to visit some of the poor migrants in front of the cameras, while even the People's Daily timidly criticized the campaign. This suggests that the authorities realized that they had gone too far. A couple of months later the evictions seem to have ended, and the public's indignation has died down. Those who had to leave have left, and the plan to turn Beijing into a modern, orderly capital city with clean(-ish) air is going ahead. But one has to wonder what all the drama around the expulsions means for China's future. Are the leadership's technocratic plans going to start encountering more resistance? Is a new era of social conscience dawning? Only time will tell.


Gilman Grundy said...

The one thing about this change is at least it isn't the kind of Potemkin pollution policing (i.e., just not producing pollution on important dates) that we have seen before.

Ji Xiang said...

Oh, there is no doubt that they are genuinely trying to do something about the air pollution. But the only method they have been able to find is one that has strongly inconvenienced some sectors of the population. said...

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