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25 Jan 2013

Week in China: Air of inferiority

Photo of polluted skyline in Guangzhou, China

China's government is coming under pressure to tackle urban pollution

Last week we wrote about Beijing’s struggle with air pollution. Coal-burning power plants, sulphurous vehicle fumes, topography, wind, temperature and air pressure were all mentioned as contributing factors. But the humble chuan’r or kebab vendor avoided blame – until now.

Dubbed “airpocalypse” or “airmageddon” online, anger at the severity of the capital’s pollution – over 25 times safe levels in the US – hasn’t cleared quite as quickly as some of the worst air that arose 10 days ago.

So the pressure is on Beijing’s city government to act. It reacts that it is limited in what it can do because much of the pollution blows in from neighbouring provinces. Even in spite of that (possibly valid) protestation, anti-pollution regulations announced by the Department of Legal Affairs on 17 January failed to pass muster with Beijingers nonetheless.

Week in China

Most local citizens were unimpressed, pointing out that the new rules didn’t differ much from regulations that were released in 2000 and which, in turn, have been widely flouted. And while they did threaten heavier fines for factories, construction sites and power plants that continue to operate during periods of ‘heavy pollution’, the new rules did not provide much detail on how such a period would be defined.

Yet it was the clause that allows the hated chengguan – the urban enforcement officials who police street markets – that earned most criticism. Why? It permitted them to shut down kebab stalls during pollution outbreaks.

The city’s tiny coal barbecues are a staple on many smaller streets, providing a cheap drinking and dining option for people on their way home.

Standing under a red neon chuan’r sign one evening this week, Mr Li, a kebab vendor in a central Beijing alleyway, laughed off the idea that he was a source of the city’s bad air.

“Have you seen how small our meat sticks are, they hardly require any coal to cook them,” Li told WiC while blasting the barbecue’s embers with an old hairdryer to make them glow.

“We are the ones who suffer, who have to stand outside and breathe the bad air,” Li complained.

Netizens echoed his sentiments.

“They should be banning the use of official cars and factories, not the little things that support simple people like barbecues,” one user argued.

Another cited a proverb to show his displeasure: “Once again the officials may set a fire, while ordinary people are not allowed to light a candle,” he wrote.

As Beijing’s pollution levels started to climb once again on Wednesday – reaching hazardous levels by mid-morning – it seems that the debate is far from over.

As Li points out, he doesn’t need the chengguan to tell him when the air is bad, as his business struggles during the worst of the pollution.

“My customers like to sit and chat with a plate of meat sticks and a cold beer. They are not going to do that when the air is like this,” Li remonstrated in contempt.

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