What a world of contrasts – the emerging China of the 21st Century. Trying to control the message and what its citizens read and see while dealing with domestic environmental challenges fed by a burgeoning urban population and rising middle class seeking the North American lifestyle. China shows a progressive bent when it announces the launching of a carbon cap and trade emissions market allowing buyers and sellers within its domestic market to trade permits for 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases per year. And China forges ahead with solar and wind projects to try and reduce its reliance on coal for energy. These initiatives make what we are currently doing in North America in contrast look backward. While at the same time China tries to control what its own citizens can read and see.
China’s leaders have so many balls in the air it will be interesting to see if they can keep up this juggling act. And what are they juggling? Well here is the latest news appearing in the world press in the last week. While the inhabitants of Beijing were being enveloped by a smog reminiscent of London’s Great Smog of 1952, (see image below) in which 4,000 to 12,000 British citizens died from heart and respiratory complications, another 51 million Chinese were achieving new insights by gaining access to the Internet.
China has advanced its industry at an unprecedented pace, built cities with millions in decades rather than centuries, and taken steps to conquer outer space. At the same time it continues to be run by an oligarchic Communist Party that is experimenting in small increments with the country’s future while remaining an institution rife with corruption.
Today’s China faces staggering pollution problems largely brought about by its large population, high energy demand, unconstrained resource development, and a lack of will to control those who negatively contribute to the environment. The latter has as much to do with the close affiliation between industry giants, the major polluters, and the political leadership.
So that’s why we saw pictures of Beijing in the last week (see images below) looking very much like the London of December 1952, enveloped in a lethal smog that contained particulate matter so dense the monitors the government uses to test the air no longer registered. An independent reading from the environmental monitors at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reached 755 micrograms while the Chinese government’s air quality index exceeded 500, literally off the charts. Levels above 300 are considered hazardous. This was air you could cut with a knife.
The human contributors to this sorry state of affairs are the coal-fired power plants that ring the city, the use of coal for home heating, and the emissions from Beijing’s rapidly burgeoning population of trucks and automobiles. Combined with slower moving weather systems, which climate scientists have been predicting as a symptom of global warming, the pollution over Beijing accumulated throughout the urban air column from high in the atmosphere to ground levels. Hence readings off the chart.
So while Beijing Chinese could hardly see the horizon or the Sun these last few days, in contrast millions of new Chinese users were accessing the web for the first time on computers and smartphones. Mobile web access in China increased 18.1% to a total of 420 million throughout the country. Web access rose by 51 million or 10% to reach 564 million, more than twice the number of Internet users in the United States. At the current rate of growth Chinese Internet will reach 1 billion by 2015. Although restricted by the Communist Party in what they can see or research it seems that the Chinese population want a larger view of the world than what they can or cannot see from the streets of their smoggy cities. And where the Internet establishes roots, disruptive trees do grow, sometimes with good consequences, sometimes with bad.