Smog-choked man sues Chinese government

A lethal smog covers part of the country and angry citizens blame the rapid rise of industry, pushed by the Communist regime. Will pollution be the issue that changes China?

The Chinese government does not take kindly to dissent. It has met protests for democracy with tanks, imprisoned bloggers and sent secret agents after artists and campaigners for free speech. Yet this week one man has inspired the public with his audacity; he is suing the authorities over the country’s terrible air.

Li Guixin is demanding that the environment bureau in his home city of Shijiazhuang should find a way to control the smog that settles over China’s north in the winter. He wants compensation for the money he has spent on face masks, air purifiers and the treadmill he bought because he could not exercise outside.

Experts say China’s air quality has reached ‘crisis’ levels this week, with a pollution density 20 times above the level the World Health Organisation says is acceptable for humans to breathe. The sun is so obscured by smog that even plant life is struggling to survive: scientists planting tomato seeds found those left outside took two months to sprout compared to a few days in a lab.

The pollution problem is the by-product of an economic transformation begun by Deng Xiaoping as far back as 1978, which has made China the second largest economy in the world. He introduced new state-backed companies to experiment with capitalism. This rapidly turned the country into a manufacturing powerhouse, and by the 1990s the rest of the globe looked on in awe as millions of Chinese escaped rural poverty and became factory workers. Sprawling workshops and coal-fired power stations soon covered much of China. But growing an economy at sometimes more than ten percent a year came at a tremendous environmental cost.

Now a richer public demands a quality of life — and air — that better fits its prosperity. Li Guixin is not alone: the internet has been clogged with thousands of pollution bloggers. The West has long assumed that a thirst for human rights would bring down the Chinese government — but could the environment be the real catalyst for change?

The problems of success

The Communist government has overcome crises for 70 years and this pollution problem will be no different, say some. It has committed an incredible $275 billion to improving air quality over the next five years, directing the economy from industry to services so the problem will recede. The masses will remain supportive of a regime that has brought such prosperity.

On the contrary, say others, the Chinese public want to clear the air and clean out their unrepresentative government. At the very least, the government must respond to demands to reduce pollution, and once it gives way to this pressure, the people will then demand and expect more accountability from their rulers.

You Decide

  1. Is China’s air problem a worthwhile price to pay for its economic growth?
  2. ‘We should stop finding fault with China and instead praise its incredible achievements.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. In two groups, find all the arguments for and against this proposition: ‘The traditional measures of a nation’s success, including economic growth, must be replaced with new goals.’
  2. Creative writing: Imagine you went to sleep before the economic revolution and only woke up in China today. Write in your diary what changes you, as an ordinary citizen, see and experience.

Some People Say...

“All progress comes at a price. There is no step forward that doesn’t also involve a step backwards.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What happens in China doesn’t affect me.
As China is now the world’s largest emitter of CO2, any changes to the pollution released there affect the entire planet and humanity’s efforts to combat global warming. China’s pollution problem is much worse than the UK’s, but even so, thousands of people in Britain are admitted to hospital each year with pollution-related illnesses. China is an extreme case of a worldwide problem.
So should I stay away from China?
Pollution in the air is worse in winter so the summer, while still unhealthy, is usually a much better time to visit the country. It is also a question of where you go: China is huge and the north is generally much more polluted than the south. Some beautiful coastal cities are almost untouched by pollution, such as Xiamen and Zhuhai.

Word Watch

Chinese government
The Communist Party has ruled China since it won the civil war in 1950. Initially founded as a communist country, many of China’s early experiments in collective production, for example in vast state-run farms, ended in disaster, which is why Deng experimented with capitalism. Opposition parties are still not allowed and many in China feel the political class does not represent them.
Shijiazhuang
The capital of Hebei province, 170 miles south of Beijing. It has a population of 10m and is regarded as one of the ten most polluted cities in China. Visibility is so poor, the government has had to introduce extra speed restrictions across the city.
Deng Xiaoping
One of the most significant figures of the 20th century, Deng brought about reforms which entirely changed the direction of China and opened its economy up to international trading, turning it into one of the world’s dominant economies. No leader has ever brought so many people out of poverty within such a short time. He dominated Chinese politics during the 1980s until he resigned as leader in 1989.

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