Air pollution – How bad is it?

Western media often show pictures or discuss the air pollution challenges facing China. Almost everyone has seen pictures of people with face masks walking in a grey haze. Are these rare occurrences? Is it as bad as it seems? Let us have a look at what is happening.

tiananmen-square-in-beijingTiananmen Square in Beijing. Source: Source: Reuters

The key issue for air pollution in China mainly focuses on small particles in suspension in the air. Unlike the West, which faced the acid rain challenge in the 1970’s, China faces a different problem, though it can be difficult to appreciate the extent of the challenges as pollution is not openly discussed in the Chinese media.

Let us understand what the PM2.5 standard is. PM2.5 stands for Particulate Matter of 2.5 micrometers (0.0025mm) or less. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a guideline and a guide for PM2.5. The guideline stipulates that PM2.5 should not exceed     10 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) annual mean (i.e. similar to average), or 25 μg/m3 24-hour mean for it to be acceptable. The WHO guide on PM2.5 is as follows.

who-air-quality-guide-for-pm2-5World Health Organization Air Quality Guide on PM2.5. Source: WHO

It is to be noticed that China has set the PM2.5 at a higher acceptable level than the WHO standard. The acceptable annual mean was increased from 10 μg/m3 to 35, and the 24-hour mean from 25 μg/m3 to 75. In effect, China has tripled the level set by the WHO, which makes it less demanding.

Let us now look at the actual PM2.5 pollution over the years. The data was obtained from the US Embassy in Beijing, which has a monitoring station on its roof. An analysis of the data has provided the following table.

beijing-air-quality-2008-2015 Source: US Embassy in Beijing (

For example, based on the above graph, roughly 180 days a year (i.e. 49% of 365 days) in Beijing would have a PM2.5 that would be Unhealthy (i.e. between 151 and 200).

If we use the mid-point value in each category of the WHO Air Quality Guide, we arrive at an annual average of 163 μg/m3, which is 4.7 higher than the Chinese acceptable standard and 16.3 times higher than the WHO acceptable standard.

The PM2.5 pollution is not distributed equally across China and affects particularly the eastern regions which are large consumers of coal, with an even greater pollution level in the provinces adjoining Beijing.

provincial-distribution-of-pm2-5-pollutionProvincial distribution of PM2.5 pollution, 2008-2010. Source: NASA

We can therefore conclude that the air pollution issue is of serious concern in China. But how do the Chinese people feel about this issue?

In a survey in spring 2015, the Pew Global Survey found that nationwide 76% of Chinese view air pollution as a moderate (41%) or very important (35%) problem. If this survey would have been done in the provinces that are most affected by air pollution, the percentage would have been understandably higher.

coal-consumption-of-coalNational wide, the consumption of coal generate by far the largest percentage of the PM2.5 pollution. Source: AFP

In China, air pollution contributes to an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths annually through an increase occurrence of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease.

The state has realized that this issue has impacted a large segment of the Chinese population. It has started to take action, but for some, it is too little. To a limited extent, people have taken to the street to protest. The state has reacted forcefully to any public display of disapproval as seen in the city of Chengdu in Dec. 2016, where protesters were arrested and a planned protest was prevented.

sit-in-protest-in-chengdu        The sit-in protest over problems of smog in Chengdu lasted for 10 minutes before the demonstrators were taken away by police. Source: Twitter@paleylin

In an upcoming post, we will look at the actions taken by the government and what could be done to address the fundamental sources of the PM2.5 problem.


Note: An excellent article (Jan. 18, 2016) from the Council on Foreign Relations presents the environmental challenges that China is facing (China’s Environmental Crisis). It can be found at:

An amazing feat

Over the last decades, China has achieved a drastic reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line. In 1981, 88% of the population was living below that line. That number now stands at 4%. The poverty line is defined as a person living on less than $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity.

This amazing achievement has been accomplished since the economic restructuring that began in 1978, and has continued uninterrupted since. Per capita annual income has increased from $200 in 1990, to $5,000 in 2010, and has continued to improve.

Poverty reduction occurred in stages. The first stage happened in the rural areas with the introduction by the central government of the Rural Responsibility System which allowed families to produce more than their allocated production quota. The additional production was sold on the open market at market prices.

The second stage was the progressive opening of the Chinese economy to foreign direct investments (FDI) that created a multitude of enterprises geared towards exports, capitalizing on the low cost of labour. This had the impact of creating a large number of unskilled positions that brought many people into well-paying jobs in an urban setting.

poverty-level*Living below $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity. Source: The Economist

In the early 1990s, the central government privatized small and medium size State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) removing the rigid constraints of a centrally planned economy and placing these companies in a market economy. Once subjected to the forces of the market, millions of employees were laid-off, but within a few years many more jobs were created due to the innovative needs placed on the new owners.

In parallel, in 2001 China joined the WTO (World Trade Organization), accelerating the economic development of the country. Many more foreign enterprises elected to establish a facility in China, again adding a large number of jobs in an urban setting. By now, local entrepreneurs had also started creating employment opportunities.

By the turn of the century, at least 200 million people had been lifted out of poverty. In the next 10 years, another 200 million people would follow, as the economic expansion continued. By 2014, a total of 700 million people were lifted out of poverty, leaving only 4% in economic difficulties. These last 55 million people are now the focus of the government.

The efforts to continue reducing poverty is one of the key objectives of the government 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020). The goal of the central government is to eradicate poverty by focusing on the 128,000 poor villages and 832 poor counties, predominantly in rural settings, in provinces located away from the coastal zones. In addition to focusing on economic conditions, the government is aiming to increase the quality of education, health services and housing.

The prime strategy to address these challenges is to encourage the development of competitive industries such as tourism and agriculture. In regions with limited economic development potential, residents will be moved. People will be relocated to areas which have greater economic possibilities. In addition, the government will introduce a guaranteed basic living standard for people unable to work.

gansuTourism features as a key economic tool in Gansu province, which has a GDP per capita at half the national average, and 4 times lower than the leading areas. Source:

In spite of these successes, different challenges were created as a result of this rapid economic growth. Probably, the greatest social challenge in China is the economic inequality that currently exists. In the 1970s, everyone had roughly the same economic level; more or less everyone was poor. As economic growth accelerated, and the economy moved from a centrally planned to a mixed economy (i.e. a combination of centrally planned and market economy), inequalities emerged. People who had post-secondary education were able to command higher salaries. Entrepreneurs were able to start businesses that rapidly flourished. Others were able to benefit from the privatization of small or medium size SOE’s. These groups of people raced towards reaping the benefits of rapid economic growth while the individuals with no or limited access to these capabilities progressed at a much slower pace.

Another challenge created by the central government relates to the partially deregulated liberty of movement. The Household Registration System (hukou) or similar methods have always been a cornerstone of the Chinese government’s desire to control the internal movement of its citizens. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s people were given the opportunity to relocate but without establishing a permanent residency in their new location. This allowed this floating population of roughly 250 million people to move from rural areas to cities in search of better paid work. As these people did not have the hukou in the city where they worked, their children and at times their spouse had to remain behind. This has created a diaspora across China of broken families that are only reunited for 5 to 14 days, once a year during the Spring Festival (i.e. Chinese New Year) held in January or February.

Both challenges are being addressed by the central government but at a rate that will see these inequalities solved at a slower pace. By 2020, it is quite probable that the poverty issue will have been nearly resolved, but the problems caused by the substantial economic inequalities and the large floating population will probably take longer.


The North-East: Shenyang to Harbin

Heading out of Shenyang (population 6.3 million, capital of Liaoning province) on board the high-speed train, we rapidly cross the industrial outskirt of the city. Within a few minutes we are in an empty countryside, as it is November and the cold weather has already been here for a few weeks.

Harbin is 540 km away. At 305 km per hour, it will take us slightly more than 2 hours to reach our destination. This will allow sufficient time to observe the environment as we speed through the countryside.

shenyang-harbin-by-trainJourney by train from Shenyang to Harbin. Source: Google Map

In no time, Shenyang is a distant memory. We only see empty fields except for the dry stalks that are the leftovers of the corn and wheat harvests. The earth is dark colour indicating rich soil. Sporadically we see a person manually tending the fields. The occasional tractor shows that mechanization has reached this part of the country. But the small fields indicate that no large equipment will be used here until the fields are much larger. Horses are seen pulling small wooden carts. There are no barns where equipment would be stored. There are no animals as it would probably be too expensive to feed and house them during the long winter.

The corn collected is air dried in wired cages. No metal silos here where corn could be stored until it is taken away by trucks to the nearest scale and then shipped to market. No mechanization to handle the crop is seen.

The occasional roads that can be seen are paved, but there are few cars on them. Side roads are in hardened earth, which the rain will turn into mud. At times, a lone highway follows the train tracks. Cars and trucks trudge along in both directions. Trucks are heavily loaded with goods that are destined for the few large cities of the North-East.

A few gullies emerge to accommodate small brooks with minimum flow. No trace of any rivers here. The fields must be watered with the randomness of the rains, as there are no traces of water wells. In between fields we see the occasional row of trees that will dampen the effect of the winds on this flat land. Fields carry on as far as the eye can see. There are no traces of forests or any discerning features, with the exception of the occasional cellular phone tower.

Small villages appear every few kilometers. Their size is almost uniform, with 30 to 60 houses located on a few streets that run parallel to each other. All houses are of the same design. They are rectangular, roughly 7 meters by 12 meters. All have the same sloping rusted corrugated roof with two chimneys. There are 4 windows at the front, 2 or 3 at the back, and none on the sides. A solar water heater is located on the roof. An electrical wire is connected to the house, but no trace of satellite dishes. Smoke is coming out of many chimneys as people have already taken refuge inside.

heilongjiangFields and villages in Heilongjiang. Source: Google Earth

A small plot of land at the front or the back of the house seems to indicate a garden that provides vegetables for the family. There are no traces of cars or pick-up trucks that one would expect to see in the countryside. Maybe people have gone to work away from town, but there are no factories around. No large buildings are to be seen in these villages. Where are the schools, hospitals, stores, gasoline stations or other institutional buildings?

Suddenly in the middle of fields, twenty residential high-rises, all identical, at least 8-floor high appear. Many seem empty. There are no cars around, no activity, only lonely buildings. A few kilometers away, another series of high-rises appear, and then 10 kilometers further is Changchun, the capital of Jilin province. There was only a short transition between the fields and the city. We can’t see this city of 4.1 million people as we are in its outskirts.

After a brief stop, we are back in the countryside. We pass within 300 meters of a coal power plant that seems recently built. Its belching chimney and two cooling towers dominate the fields. There are a few piles of coal nearby; a few kilometers away, another coal power plant.

The monotony of small fields and villages is back. Some fields have been set on fire to burn the left over dry vegetation, which will fertilize the fields for the next growing season. Unfortunately, these fires will also increase the pollution, mainly particles in suspension in the air, for which China is well known.

One hour after leaving Changchun, the train rolls into Harbin (population 5.3 million, capital of Heilongjiang province). The transition from fields to the cityscape is instant. Low rise buildings surround the brand new station that remains to be connected to the subway system. The countryside is long gone, but never far from any city as almost 50% of China’s population still lives in a rural setting.

Over the coming years, the migration of tens of millions of people from the countryside to the cities will continue. It is obvious that the countryside is overpopulated to take care of the existing fields. Mechanization will progressively be used as the standard of living continues growing. What will happen to all these small villages? How will the people who migrate to the cities thrive? So many questions remain.