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Chinese citizens losing patience with air pollution consequences

October 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
China's tremendous growth has transformed the lives of its citizens but it has also come with a cost: significant air pollution. The major industrial city of Harbin shut down when smog levels reached record levels. Jeffrey Brown talks to Evan Osnos of The New Yorker about the ramifications of China's air quality problems.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: struggling to breathe in China.

Today, the city of Harbin and its 11 million residents ground to a halt after officials discovered that the region’s small particle pollution has reached record levels 40 times higher than the international safety standard. Planes didn’t fly, buses weren’t allowed on roads, and schools were closed.

Jeffrey Brown is back with more.

JEFFREY BROWN: China has seen tremendous economic and urban growth, but one of the costs is some of the worst air quality in the world. It’s a health issue and increasingly a political one as well.

Evan Osnos, a writer for “The New Yorker” magazine, just returned to the U.S. after living in Beijing for eight years, and joins us now.

And welcome to you.

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EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the significance of a reading this high? You watched this for many yeas. Put it in some context.

EVAN OSNOS: This is unusually high. This is a — to put it in perspective, people walked out of their houses today, and thought that there was a blizzard. But, in fact, it wasn’t snowing. This is how intense the air pollution was. They had to close the airport. They had to close schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is stunning to say, to — just the idea of shutting down a city of 11 million people or so?

EVAN OSNOS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that — what does that mean?

EVAN OSNOS: A city that is two-and-a-half times the size of Los Angeles. This is way up in the northeast corner of the country. It’s sort of the Buffalo of China. It’s very cold.

And the heat came on yesterday. That was the first big cold day of the winter. And when that happened, that meant that they burned all of this coal. And all that coal went into the atmosphere,and it spiked and you got this extraordinary, intense air pollution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so when — when they — you say the heat came on, meaning…

EVAN OSNOS: Chinese…

JEFFREY BROWN: … Literally, this is how the heating system works?

Explain.

EVAN OSNOS: Yes.

The Chinese government still maintains very strong control around the country, obviously. And one of the ways it does that is that it sets the day when the heat goes on. And so when the heat goes on for a city of 11 million people, that sets an enormous strain on the system.

So you have got that. And then on top of it, over the course of the last 10 years, China has added four times as many cars to the system as there was before, in just 10 years. So you have the combination of coal and cars, no wind, and you have got this extraordinary pollution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so as this has been happening, and not just in this city, of course, what kind of pushback is there? What kind of response is there now?

EVAN OSNOS: People are losing their patience with it.

For years, the argument in China that you heard from ordinary people was, our lives are getting better. We have cars we didn’t have before. We have apartments we couldn’t afford before. And we’re willing to put up with air pollution. They’re not as willing as they were before.

If you go online on the Chinese web, you see people saying things like, welcome to the middle class, and they mean it bitterly. This is not what they wanted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because this was — this was sort of part of the deal, right, as I mentioned, economic growth which was coming, and has come, and that’s meant huge urban growth to cities like this.

EVAN OSNOS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this is also now a part of the deal people are less happy with.

EVAN OSNOS: Absolutely. It’s transformed the country. There is no question about it.

People today, compared to 30 years ago, their lives are impossible to compare. However, they worry about the health of their children. There has been — now, cancer is the leading cause of death in China. They now know how many die from air pollution every year. It’s 1.2 million people.

That is something that people know about. In the past, Chinese government didn’t release the data on the air pollution. Nobody knew how bad it was. They can’t do that anymore. There is now social media and they have no choice. They talk about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have written about this, about what it means in day-to-day life. Just give us a little sense of how people have to — how they cope.

EVAN OSNOS: I mean, I will give you an example. We lived in China, my wife and I, for eight years.

After we had been there for a while, people began to realize that the best Christmas present we could get were air purifiers. And that’s what we used to get. We would go in to friends’ houses and you comment on their air purifier. You would say, that’s a nice model you have got there.

It became a part of life. I mean, this is — 10 years ago, nobody knew that the leaders of the country lived in a different environment than the ordinary people did. But now they know that the people who run the country have air purifiers and they…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, that is part of this, right, the politics of this, the people who can deal with, can cope and can pay…

EVAN OSNOS: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: … to get away from it.

EVAN OSNOS: They used to say that the air quality couldn’t be that bad, because, after all, the leaders have to breathe the same air we do.

And then people started going online. They started to find out that, in fact, there is this — there is a sort of dual universe. There is the world for everybody, and then there is the world for the top leadership. And they’re not happy with it anymore. And they complain about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so, very briefly, I mean, complain, but is it a potential political issue going forward?

EVAN OSNOS: It’s been a huge political issue.

Already, you have had protests over the possible construction of chemical plants, for instance. People who didn’t ordinarily have a political bone in their bodies have gotten up and said, what I worry about is the health of my kids. And so they will go out into the streets and they will have what they call strolling protests, where they go out and they say, we’re not trying to topple the government.

All we’re saying is, listen to us and prioritize this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Evan Osnos of “The New Yorker,” thanks so much.

EVAN OSNOS: My pleasure.