Is China’s Communist Party Choking?
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
The fact that I grew up in Los Angeles has rarely felt relevant for my work as a China specialist. But it sure did last weekend as record-breaking levels of smog descended on Beijing.
The smoggiest days I remember from my childhood in L.A. were no match for the ones China’s capital has experienced lately. In the past week, smog levels there exceeded anything seen in recent years—and Beijing is no stranger to lung-choking air. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has been monitoring local air quality using a scale that officially stops at 500, with readings anywhere from 301 or above considered “hazardous.” But last Saturday the numbers soared well beyond that, with one unofficial embassy reading hitting 800. Bloomberg reported that the head of cardiology at a Beijing hospital said that the number of people coming into emergency rooms with heart attacks doubled last Friday.
Still, growing up in L.A. left me with an appreciation that heavy smog can do more than just make it hard to breathe or obscure the view. In the 1960s and 1970s, it affected Los Angeles’ real estate market: Houses close to the coast cost more, not only because of beach access, but also because breezes coming off the ocean kept the air cleaner.
Beijing’s horrific smog has much more important unintended consequences. In seeking to legitimate its rule, the Communist Party insists that under its watch, especially in recent economic boom times, life in Chinese cities has gotten steadily better in every way. This development-equals-progress narrative has been losing purchase thanks not just to worries about air pollution, but also tainted food scandals, the most famous of which involved milk powder laced with melamine, and a concern about chemical plants spewing toxic run-off into waterways, which has inspired an uptick in not-in-my-backyard protests across China.
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