This time last year, the pollution in Northern China was terrible. I had a friend visiting and in the photographs of the days he was here, we are wearing masks. On his visit to Tianjin he was unable to see the glorious architecture along the river for the thick, grey haze. There were reports of the smog on the BBC News and a five day red alert issued. The first since the inaugural red warning made in the same month the year before.
The winter smog is caused by Coal-powered industries and heating systems, as well as vehicle emissions and dust from construction sites. Its exacerbated by the low humidity and lack of wind. This year the sky has been remarkably clear. As I sit writing, the Yan Mountains stand out sharp against the brilliant blue sky and the view of the city, from my 20th floor apartment, is clear, the tall buildings downtown visible on the edge of the horizon.
According to work colleagues and Chinese friends, the government has been working hard to deal with the problem. Closing polluting factories, stopping construction projects and converting heating to gas. In villages around the city and out into the countryside of Hebei, the coal stoves used to heat and cook in homes have been replaced, for free, with gas versions.
Some industries have moved. The old chemical works in Binhai, whose tall chimneys belched thick, stinking smoke, 24/7, have gone to a modern facility in the South Port Industrial Area. On a recent cycle ride out to the mountains, I came across a whole area of abandoned factories, the approach roads silent and the thin, tall smokestacks without a trace of emissions.
Whether production from these factories had moved too, or just forced to close is unclear. A colleague told me of industries being shut down and workers being sent back to their hometowns. It sounds like a convenient policy; government owned industries have been overproducing for years and with the slowing economy, weeding out the older, less efficient and dirtier companies is a solution that improves efficiency and reduces the state burden. The cost of a few lost, low value, jobs balanced against the popular improvements to the environment.
Also in the news are the pulling down of illegal homes in the city. These shabby buildings sprawl among the suburbs of Beijing and are being steadily demolished. The destruction follows a fire where several people died, which the government say is a result of not complying with building standards.
Most of the occupants of these buildings had migrated to the city for work. Following the destruction many are forced to return to their villages. There is a suspicion that getting rid of these buildings is a move to beautify the city. Maybe, the unregulated constructions, as well as probably dangerous, are often ugly and dilapidated. And when property prices are spiralling higher than central London, the increase in housing density that any rebuilding would eventually produce, makes sense. As factories close and move out to the poorer parts of the region, there is a logic in encouraging the low skilled, low earners to move out with them.
The switch to gas has other problems. There are reports of shortages in supply and, I’ve heard, some village homes have been left without heating and the occupants freezing. It’s probably a temporary problem as the country adjusts away from the traditional use of coal. For the majority; the rich, the tourists, the expats and the pollution monitors in the cities, it’s only a great improvement in the quality of life.
I asked if the weather, the light breezes that have been blowing, might have helped clear the air. Everyone replied that it was due to the government. It’s a view unlikely to change, even, if later in the winter, the smog rolls back in because it has already been a huge improvement on the past. For me, one year’s improvement isn’t conclusive that the changes are already producing results, but what government wouldn’t try to take the credit. I’ll judge after a few more years.