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Yang-Yang Dispatch

MAD About Air Pollution in China's Big Cities
July 8, 2000

Coming to China with the Odyssey has been like returning home for me. Even though I moved away to America when I was only six years old, I have always remembered life in China with very fond memories. I have missed being with my family, strolling the streets at night in my slippers, eating with chopsticks, riding my bicycle through crowded alleyways, seeing Chinese faces everywhere, and even squatting to go to the toilet. But what wasn't a part of my memories is seeing and breathing in all the air pollution that is now a part of everyday life in China's big cities.

The Economics of China

Times have changed though. Significant economic growth has occurred in the past ten years. The amount that China's economy produces each year (the country's Gross Domestic Product) has grown an average of 9% each year since 1990. This may not seem like a lot to you, but in the world of economics, this figure is astounding.

The economic boom has made certain members of Chinese society a lot richer. These people are enjoying their new wealth by buying new clothes, McDonald's hamburgers, bigger homes, and of course, cars. Cars have become status symbols. Toyotas, Mercedes, BMWs, and Sontanas (a brand manufactured jointly by Volkswagon and a Chinese car company) now line China's busy roads. Additionally, many urbanites who travel long distances for work every day are opting to commute by car, instead of relying on China's slow and overcrowded buses.

The air pollution in modern-day China is so bad that huge clouds of dark smoke can be seen blowing out of cars' exhaust pipes as they make their way across a busy intersection. I have often had to cover my mouth with my hand or my shirt as I crossed the street, trying to keep from choking on the foul air. Many of China's largest cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, now appear to be permanently covered with a layer of smog. The clouds of smoke and the smog are only what the naked eye can see. Once released, air pollutants soon rise into the atmosphere and are carried to surrounding areas by the wind, being breathed in by literally thousands of people along the way.

Click image for larger view
Bicycles are popular and environmentally friendly
Unfortunately, China's countryside is also starting to be adversely affected, as companies start to build their factories in more remote areas. I have been one of the unlucky victims in the daily battle of pedestrians versus cars. Since we started the Trek in Kunming, I have had an awful cough that has kept me up many nights, tossing and turning in bed, as I struggle to take in a full breath of air. At first I thought I was just coming down with a slight cold, but after two full weeks of rest and medication, my cough and sore throat still bother me every day. Maybe my fear is just psychological, but I can feel my throat getting worse each time I start getting close to a major intersection.

A main reason for China's dirty air is all the motorized vehicles driving around the crowded city streets. There are buses, taxis, cars, motorcycles, shuttles, and trucks crowding China's streets along with the bikers and pedestrians. When I was growing up in Beijing, it used to be that everyone walked, biked, or took the bus. Back then, most Chinese people were still very poor. Very few people could afford to take a taxi, let alone own a private car.

Transportation, in general, remains a complicated problem in China. With more than a billion people who have to get to work, to school, to the store, to the park, and to friends' homes every day, you can just imagine the amount of traffic in the streets. Finding an efficient, affordable, and environmentally friendly way of getting all those people around has been a continuing challenge for city planners.

The Chinese Standard of Living

The Chinese people were deprived of a decent standard of living during the political turmoil and economic stagnation of 1959 to 1979. This last decade has been the first real opportunity since the Communist Party took power in 1949 for private citizens to enjoy a higher standard of living. From 1959 to 1979, just about everyone was dirt poor. Food was rationed to city residents, and wages were often paid in the form of consumer products rather than money. Household items taken for granted by the West, such as televisions, refrigerators, and flushable toilets, were considered luxuries even in China's big cities.

In 1979, Chairman Deng Xiopeng implemented significant economic reforms that opened China's doors to foreign influence, modernized Chinese agriculture, and allowed some enterprises to sell their products in the marketplace. It has only been in the last decade that some urban residents have begun enjoying air conditioning, private showers, computers, and cars. Although China remains a third world nation as it enters the twenty-first century, its current economic situation represents a huge improvement over just 20 years earlier.

But believe it or not, cars are not the major source of air pollution in China. The real culprits are factories in the countryside, called Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs). Despite attempts from the Chinese government to impose and enforce pollution laws, these factories are releasing massive amounts of harmful chemicals into the air, water, and ground.

A third cause of China's poor air quality is the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, to create energy. China has the world's largest reserves of coal, so naturally, it is a cheap form of electricity. In the short-run burning coal to supply electricity appears to be saving the country money, but in the long run there will be high environmental and health costs to pay. The Chinese government has recognized this problem and is busy seeking alternate sources of energy. One controversial project is the Three Gorges Dam being built right here in the Hubei Province. When completed, this dam will be a key source of electricity for the entire country. Read next week's dispatch, when I go visit the dam's construction site, to find out how this hydroelectric production plant will affect the local environment, the national economy, and China's energy supply.

Click image for larger view
China's busy intersections are crowded with cyclists
So what does the future hold for China's environment? As China continues to modernize, the Chinese people are naturally going to want to consume those goods that they have been deprived of for years: cars, Cokes, and meat. These changes will most likely have negative environmental effects. My hope is that the Chinese people and government will work together to use some of their new wealth to improve air quality and raise awareness about environmental and health issues.


adversely - contrary to one's interests or welfare
astounding - amazing
urbanites - city dwellers
opt - to choose
culprit - guilty party
fossil fuel - a type of fuel that is a non-renewable, natural resource. Examples are petroleum, coal and natural gas

China's next generation is starting to do its part. Now it's our turn to help Make A Difference. Remember that we all share the same planet, breathe in the same air, and drink water coming from the same rainfall. So we need everyone's help to create a cleaner and healthier home.

To start, here is a list of simple things that you and I can do in our everyday lives to help cut down on waste and decrease pollution:

  • Reuse plastic bottles whenever you can. If you have to throw it away, hold on to your bottle until you find a recycling can.

  • If you're not in a big hurry to get somewhere close by, try taking public transportation or riding your bike instead of driving. When buying a car, choose a model with higher fuel efficiency. This will not only save you money on gas (since you will be able to get farther with each gallon of gas), but will also burn less gasoline, therefore releasing fewer air pollutants.

  • If you're only buying a couple of things at the grocery store, stick them in your bag instead of using a new plastic bag. Did you know that in Germany, all the grocery stores charge money for each bag they give customers to hold their groceries?

  • Educate yourself about environmental and health issues that interest you. And don't be afraid to ask questions.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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