In 2013, I spent a month traveling with the photographer Sim Chi Yin through southern Hebei for a piece that eventually appeared inThe New Yorker later that year (“In the Air”). What struck me most was the sense that ordinary people really got it—they knew their region had become one of the most polluted in the world, and in their own way they were pushing for change. One of the people Chi Yin and I spent days and days with was a second-generation steelworker named Han Zhigang. He had started an outdoor activity club so his daughter could go out to the mountains and get fresh air, and was building gliders to fly off the Taihang Mountains. One of the club’s member was a member of the Handan Party School—the Communist Party’s training wing. She was a really smart cadre in her early 30s, also with a young daughter, and she was highly critical of Party policies. She said the local Party school had already begun training cadres in pollution control and told them that they would be held to concrete standards.
Already, you could see signs of improvement (mainly because the bar was so low): piles of coal now had to be fenced in so dust couldn’t blow around so easily, and filters were being installed (and used). Within a few months, Xi Jinping had announced that cadres would be judged by metrics other than economic growth, and leaders also promised to spent hundreds of billions cleaning up that region.
I’m not defending China’s system, but when it works, this is how it works. Obviously this way of doing things has its limitations. As Chai Jing noted, one problem is that it’s harder to take on politically connected vested interests. Hansteel, for example, seemed like a model company inside the city limits of Handan, but it had simply pushed its dirtiest coking factories to the foothills of the Taihang Mountains, ruining villages and good cropland. (You can see some of this in the photo essay by Chi Yin in The New Yorker.) Seeing how Hansteel had skirted the regulations made me skeptical that a mainly top-down approach would work in the long run.More debate in ChinaFile.
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