China's Spectacularly Silly Plan to Curb Air Pollution
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Ah, yes—the Chinese government will stop at nothing to reduce pollution that has enveloped parts of the country in a toxic soup. First, Chinese cities restricted the number of cars on the road and scrapped old vehicles. Then the government asked citizens to give up a time-honored tradition of setting off thousands of firecrackers before and on Chinese New Year. Beijing’s next ambitious measure? Banning barbecue.
At least that’s what China’s state media is reporting, though it scrimps on details. China’s environmental watchdog has now issued draft legislation calling on cities to ban "barbecue-related activities." (Does that include just eating barbecue, looking at barbecue, or thinking about barbecue? We don’t know!) One blogger on Sina Weibo indelicately commented in response, "Soon they’ll ban farting in order to clean up the air."
Indeed, that captures our take on the government’s latest efforts at reducing pollution. As one would say in Chinese with emphasis, fangpi–which means rubbish (or, literally, "fart"). True, coal-burning grills that make Xinjiang-style meat skewers dot many small streets in Chinese cities. But they are far from the real root of China’s pollution: resistance from state-owned companies and local governments, poor regulation, and the country’s large population. However, when pollution in Beijing in January reached more than 20 times international standards deemed as safe, it was blamed mostly on emissions from coal-burning power stations and car exhaust.
The breakneck speed of China’s development has meant that thousands of factories surround cities, spewing industrial waste into the air and surrounding rivers. Officials of provinces and cities encourage industry to increase local output, a key measure of their performance, and then misreports levels of local pollution to Beijing. Its 1.3 billion people drive increasing numbers of cars, use coal to warm their houses, and enjoy a good barbie now and then—which have all contributed to water and air contamination.
Chinese authorities have tended to frame pollution as an unfortunate consequence of China’s fast economic growth. That discussion changed last month with Beijing’s "airpocalypse," leading officials to warn residents to stay indoors. Realizing there was no way to spin the appearance of thick grey smog, officials allowed domestic media to freely report on China’s environmental troubles. Officials have been trotting out new measures since then to show how serious they are about tackling the issue. But as we’ve reported before, a truly ambitious move would be for Beijing to disregard the interests of powerful state-owned refineries and give China’s environmental regulator, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, real teeth to regulate provinces and cities.
Moreover, it seems officials have miscalculated how impressed the public would be. As one user on Weibo said, "This is hilarious. What are they going to consider next?"
Top image: A vendor hands barbequed meat to customers at a food stall in Beijing. (Claro Cortes IV/Reuters)
This post originally appeared on Quartz.