Beijing’s smog: Clearing the air

Inside the “Airpocalypse”

What comes to mind when you think of Beijing? Chances are, many would think of its air pollution, which has made headlines over the years. In this post, let us take a look at Beijing’s management of air pollution.

The China World Trade Center Tower III on 26 February 2013 (left) and on the following day (right). (Source: X)
The caption for 5th December 2011 proclaims: the apocalypse is coming! (Source: X)

In January 2013, the city experienced one of its worst-ever bouts of air pollution, with some areas’ PM2.5 readings reaching 993µg/m3 on the 12th (the World Health Organization’s guideline is a 24-hour mean of 25µg/m3) (World Health Organization 2006). Air pollution was pretty terrible in Beijing in that year, with the Air Quality Index being at Unhealthy (for sensitive groups) levels or above for more than half of the days:

CNN’s coverage of Beijing’s air pollution episode in January 2013.
A bleak picture: daily Air Quality Index readings for Beijing in 2013 over the year (Source: X) and by proportion. (Source: Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center, cited in Zhang et al. 2014: 5324)

While measures that targeted sources like vehicular emissions and coal consumption were subsequently implemented (UN Environment 2019), a relatively unorthodox policy to tackle the city’s air pollution woes was also introduced: the banning of outdoor barbecues.

A worker destroys barbecue grills that have been seized as municipal officers watch on. (Source: X)

In late 2013, Chinese state media announced that a crackdown on more than 500 illegal outdoor barbecues had been conducted. A decree also ordered all grilling to be shifted indoors from 1 May 2014, with fines up to RMB 20 000 (~£2300) for violators. In January 2017, a new police taskforce was announced to have been set up to tackle local causes of air pollution, such as outdoor barbecues and dusty roads.

A study conducted in the aftermath of the severe air pollution episode in 2013 identified major local sources of the city’s PM2.5. Barbecues don’t seem to figure as a significant source. [translations in italics] (Source: X)

Banning barbecues by who?

One headline called this idea “bizarre”. Quartz even called it “spectacularly silly”. Weibo comments poked fun at it, with one being “Don’t know what the proportion of pollution from skewers is among different sources of pollution. Don’t know when farting will be banned”. However, there have been concerns alongside such relatively light-hearted responses that the ban targets the city’s rural migrants, many of which who eke out a living selling chuan’er (skewers) along city streets. These migrants do not have Beijing hukou, which is a permit that entitles one to social services and economic opportunities based on one’s formally registered home province. The informal economy is thus one of their few options for a living. Their lack of official recognition and status effectively condemns them to being ‘second-class citizens’ that lack rights to the city (Swider 2015: 712), making them easy targets of government measures aimed at remedying socio-environmental issues such as air pollution.

UPE is particularly interested in examining how the discourse socio-political actors use to engage with material flows creates urban environments that are laden with and manifest power asymmetries (Heynen et al. 2006). Through the lenses of UPE, Beijing’s move to ban barbecues seems to marry the common ‘environmental discourse[…] that tend[s] to justify pollution-control policies referring to the public-goods character of the environment and to concerns over public health […] [c]urbing pollution … is presented to be in the ‘public interest’’ (Véron 2006: 2097) with political measures that could undermine migrants’ place in the city. It possibly indicates the creation of a specific socio-environmental narrative by those who have the power to decide the city’s approach towards air pollution to operationalise further discrimination against migrants. In this case, discourse regarding Beijing’s air pollution is used in negotiations of whose livelihood (and by extension, who) is unwelcome in the city.

From this, we can see that air pollution management is far from apolitical in Beijing. UPE offers a critical lens we can use to evaluate how cities handle and frame environmental crises, as they can be contextualised within larger forces of discrimination. In this, we find a voice for marginalised groups, who often find themselves fighting for their place in the city.

List of References

Heynen, N., Kaika, M., and Swyngedouw, E. (2006) ‘Urban political ecology: Politicizing the production of urban natures’, in Heynen, N., Kaika, M., and Swyngedouw, E. (eds) In the Nature of Cities, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 1-19.

Swider, S. (2015) ‘Reshaping China’s Urban Citizenship: Street Vendors, Chengguan and Struggles over the Right to the City’, Critical Sociology, 41, 4-5, 701-716.

UN Environment (2019) ‘A Review of 20 Years’ Air Pollution Control in Beijing’, Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

Véron, R. (2006) ‘Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi’, Environment and Planning A, 38, 2093-2109.

World Health Organization (2006) ‘WHO Air quality guidelines for particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide Global update 2005 Summary of risk assessment’, Geneva: World Health Organization.

Zhang, D., Liu, J., and Li, B. (2014) ‘Tackling Air Pollution in China – What do We Learn from the Great Smog of 1950s in LONDON’, Sustainability, 6, 8, 5322-5338.

6 thoughts on “Beijing’s smog: Clearing the air

  1. Hi! This was a great read! It’s very interesting to hear about the discrimination that migrants undergo by city planners, just because they want them off of the streets. Do you think the decree of banning barbecues is actually effective in reducing the amount of air pollution in the city? What other measures do you think would be viable in reducing the overall amount of air pollution in Beijing?

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    1. Hi there! I would think that banning barbecues would not really reduce air pollution significantly, since the city’s air pollution mainly stems from vehicular emissions and industry. Pollutants are also blown in from neighbouring Hebei province (see here: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2016-07/12/content_38861366.htm), which is where much of the country’s iron and steel manufacturing are concentrated. Beijing has been trying to address its within-city sources of air pollution by imposing stricter standards on vehicular fuel, as well as shutting down coal-fired power plants.

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  2. Hi there. This was a really interesting read which is very different from the norm. Much of the stuff I read is about Beijing’s immense congestion and industrial activity causing the pollution problem. You’ve highlighted something that i would never have thought about. Do you feel that the government’s decision to ban BBQ’s was a political statement towards illegal street vendors or do you think it was a legitimate way to reduce pollution? Also, what can Beijing do to reduce its pollution, because i’ve been to Shanghai, Xiamen, Guangzhou and Quanzhou and pollution didnt seem that bad. Why is Beijing so bad, what could they do?

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    1. Hi! I can’t say for sure, but there have been previous cases of migrants being targeted in a manner said to be politically motivated. There is a term called “low-end population” (diduan renkou) that is used to describe migrants that are at the bottom of society, in the sense that they work low-paid and/or informal jobs and are marginalised in multiple aspects of their lives. This term has allegedly appeared in official Beijing government documents, which calls for the low-end population to be “cleared away”, “regulated”, and “controlled” (see here: https://chinamediaproject.org/2017/11/30/the-official-origins-of-low-end-population/). In November 2017, after a huge fire broke out in a building mostly occupied by low-income migrants and/or their families, the city launched a campaign to evict those living in illegally constructed buildings so that it could destroy those hazardous buildings, leaving many migrants homeless overnight (see here: https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/beijing-how-does-a-tragic-fire-turn-into-the-mass-eviction-of-migrant-workers/). So there seems to be a case of migrants being targeted with public safety/interest as justification.

      About your second question, Beijing has implemented measures to address air pollution, as in my reply to Emma. But in a sense the city is quite unlucky when it comes to air pollution, because it lies on a plain surrounded by hills, and is also more inland than the cities you mentioned (Shanghai, Xiamen, Guangzhou, and Quanzhou), which makes it difficult for air pollutants to be blown out of the city. I would think that stricter regulation of pollutive industries is needed, as well as more restrictions on vehicular emissions (though measures that restrict the number of cars on the road, or introduce taxes for road use are likely to be unpopular).

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