China’s Changing Response to Pollution Cases
China has attracted world attention for its high pollution levels. Since environmental quality impacts living conditions and economic development, the Chinese government in recent years has become more responsive and active in addressing environmental issues. There are several significant events that trace the increasing focus on environmental issues and clearly show the shift of attention from water pollution to air pollution. Consider, for example, the Songhua River water pollution problem in 2005 and the Beijing air pollution event in 2008. Both illustrate how internal and external pressures have moved the Chinese government forward in addressing environmental quality.
The Songhua River flows through four provinces in northeastern China and supplies water for more than one hundred million people. On November 13, 2005, the Songhua River was severely polluted when 100 tons of nitrobenzene were released into the river due to a chemical plant explosion. The concentration of nitrobenzene immediately exceeded the government regulation after the explosion. Due to lack of knowledge, the electric plant in Jilin started to increase the water flow rate on November 14th, in order to flush the pollution out of Jilin Province. The polluted water plume extended 80 kilometers long, arriving in Heilongjiang Province on November 24th. This caused a severe water shortage for the people in Heilongjiang Province from November 23rd to 28th. In this event, eight people died and sixty people were injured in the explosion. Seventy million dollars were used for emergency treatment and citizens’ daily lives in the region were severely affected by the societal disorder. The impact of this polluted water on human health still cannot be completely evaluated and the government paid an undisclosed amount of indemnity to Russia since the plume ultimately entered Russia. The performance of the government was unsatisfactory due to the lack of technical knowledge, which made the situation even worse. There was almost no preparation for the emergency event, and no governmental agency provided professional guidance. However,
this was the first high profile event about pollution issues in China and the result was a new set of guidelines to hold government officials accountable. Detailed emergency treatment plans were revised for chemical plants all around the country. In other words, the Songhua River pollution event forced the government to focus on water pollution over the next ten years. After the pollution event, the regulations became more official, more public, and more rigorous.
One day in 2008, due to concerns over heavy air pollution, some agencies in Beijing installed rooftop air-quality monitors and automatically tweeted the results. However, the air quality index provided by the Chinese government was only one-third as high as the air quality index tweeted by foreign agencies. The following day, the Chinese government provided several ambiguous explanations regarding the difference in indices, but it seems the public was not satisfied. Under public pressure in this event, the Chinese government now provides specific and detailed regulations to deal with air pollution, including encouraging people to use public transportation, limiting automobile traffic by alternating the days a car owner is allowed to drive, and moving high-energy consumption industries out of Beijing, especially coal-combustion industries. Unlike the Songhua River disaster, this time the Internet played an important role in the nationwide discussion and the public showed more interest in pollution issues. According to the discussion, new regulations promised to provide real-time air quality index figures online. Carbon monoxide, ozone, and PM2.5 were added for the first time. The limit level for other pollutants was lowered, and regional pollution control strategies were carried out.
Unlike Beijing air pollution which is a continual problem, the Songhua River water pollution in 2005 was a one-time incident, but it is the first time it drew the Chinese public’s attention to a pollution issue. In recent years, people in China have become more familiar with the Internet and other media, and can more easily monitor this type of event. Economic development also makes everyone care more about living conditions and quality of the environment. In the Songhua River disaster, the Chinese government was not well prepared and economic loss occurred due to ignorance. The government experienced great pressure from the inside and carried out strict and detailed regulations on emergency aid after the crisis. After the severe air pollution event happened three years later in China’s most well-known city, worldwide attention was drawn to the issue. This time the Chinese government took more effective action to respond to the crisis, and it was primarily external pressures that pushed the government to make progress in improving environmental conditions in China.