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China’s Off-the-Chart Air Pollution: Why It Matters (and Not Only to the Chinese) - Part One

An Interview with Daniel K. Gardner

By Claire Topal and Yeasol Chung
January 14, 2014

Rising levels of air pollution have accompanied three decades of phenomenal economic growth in China. Coal-burning factories and vehicle emissions fouling the air in the country’s major industrial and population centers have made deteriorating air quality a leading health concern that until relatively recently had been downplayed or dismissed by Chinese government authorities. Key announcements in the past year, however, have signaled a significant shift as the central government has begun to tackle the difficult question of how to reduce pollutants without slowing down economic growth.

Daniel K. Gardner, the Dwight W. Morrow Professor of History and East Asian Studies at Smith College, specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of premodern China and has written extensively on China’s pollution challenges. He spoke with NBR about the seriousness of China’s air pollution, the health implications for the Chinese people, the impact on the country’s economy, and the influence of domestic environmental NGOs. This is part one of a two-part interview with Professor Gardner.

How serious is China’s air pollution?

Recent images from Harbin, Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities show us all too graphically what air pollution in China looks like these days: a brownish, soupy concoction that renders buildings, streets, and people all but invisible. Day becomes night. The few people who make shadowy appearances in these images sport facemasks.

If these images aren’t enough to persuade us of the seriousness of China’s air pollution, the air-quality numbers certainly are. In late October 2013 the PM2.5 level registered an astonishing 1,000 in the city of Harbin. [1] This is 40 times what the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe for humans to breathe. In January 2013, during Beijing’s now infamous “airpocalypse,” scores between 500 and 900 were routine. In the last couple of months, Shanghai has experienced its worst air pollution on record, hitting 600 on December 7. If we consider that a PM2.5 reading of 500 is the upper limit of the Air Quality Index (AQI) scale, anything beyond 500, or “beyond index” as the Chinese call it, is just plain scary.

What do we need to understand about air pollution in China in the context of rapid social, political, cultural, and economic change?

When Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in the late 1970s, few observers would have imagined what the next three decades would bring. China’s GDP has grown roughly 10% annually since, and its economy is now the second largest in the world. Thirty years ago, the single-speed Flying Pigeon bicycle ruled the roads; today, China is the world’s largest car market. If one looked out across the Huangpu River from the Bund in Shanghai thirty years ago, one would have seen farmland and a few warehouses and wharves; now one looks up from the Bund and sees the Pudong cityscape. The material progress of the past thirty years is staggering—a source of pride for the Chinese people, as well as a source of legitimacy for the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But that progress has come at great cost: toxic air.

What are the short-term and long-term health implications for the people of China?

China’s air is full of pollutants emitted by power plants, heavy industry, building construction, and cars. Breathing in that air, especially what is called particulate matter, poses a serious health threat to human beings. Particulate matter is a term for solid particles and liquid droplets—dust, dirt, smoke, organic chemicals, metals, and so on—suspended in the air. This matter comes in two sizes: particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) and particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers. When we inhale, these particles enter into our respiratory system and can travel into our lungs and even our bloodstream. PM2.5 is the more harmful of the two: at a miniscule 2.5 micrometers, these tiny particles, which are less than 1/30 the width of a human hair, can make their way deep into our lungs and lodge there. In the past twenty years, scientific studies have shown that PM10 and PM2.5 are linked to a range of health issues, including shortness of breath, asthma attacks, acute bronchitis, decreased lung function, lung cancer, heart attacks, and premature death.

Consider this: a 2012 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured the air quality in a typical smoking lounge in a U.S. airport and found the average PM2.5 reading to be 166.6 micrograms per cubic meter. A few months later, in January 2013, the month of the airpocalypse, the daily average PM2.5 reading in Beijing was 194 micrograms per cubic meter. The air Beijingers breathed was 16% worse than the air in a U.S. airport smoking lounge. Imagine breathing in that thick, acrid-tasting mix over the course of a lifetime. Keep in mind, too, that going into a smoking lounge is entirely up to you; breathing the air in Beijing, Harbin, or Shanghai, if you live there, or happen to be visiting, is not.

Two major scientific studies released in the past year leave little doubt as to the havoc that China’s polluted air has wreaked on the health of the Chinese people. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tsinghua and Hebrew Universities demonstrated that during 1981–2001 the average level of particulate matter in north China was 55% higher than in South China because of the north’s greater dependence on coal for winter heating. This burden of pollution had a stunning effect on life expectancy: the 500 million people in north China lived on average 5.5 fewer years than the residents of south China, owing almost entirely to the higher incidence of cardiorespiratory illness. [2]

The findings of the second study were equally dramatic. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 concluded that particulate matter in outdoor air pollution in China contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone. [3] The study also found that there has been a rise in cardiovascular diseases in China—ischemic heart disease, strokes, and pulmonary disease—all conditions that recent research has shown to be affected by exposure to polluted air. Clearly, China’s air is doing substantial damage to the health of people who breathe it.

What are the economic implications?

The economic costs of air pollution are immense. A number of studies have attempted to calculate the cost of China’s air pollution as a percentage of the country’s GDP, but the figures they arrive at range widely—I’ve seen 2.5% to 10%—depending to a large degree on what metric researchers use and whether they take into account both short-term and long-term health outcomes. Some studies also factor in “material” or “non-health impacts” in addition to “health impacts.”

Polluted air significantly raises morbidity and mortality rates, as the MIT and the Global Burden of Disease studies indicate. These higher rates, in turn, translate into higher medical costs and an increase in missed working days (i.e., lower productivity). Additionally, polluted air results in resource depletion: soil acidification from acid rain reduces the amount of China’s arable land, lowering crop productivity; mercury emitted by coal combustion enters the water systems, contaminating water and affecting fish, rice, vegetables, and fruits; and airborne pollutants kill off trees and forests. Polluted air also takes aim at building structures, hastening their deterioration. Indeed, many worry about the effect that airborne chemicals will have on the country’s precious historical monuments.

There are indirect economic effects of the sooty air to consider as well. For instance, as Shanghai revs up efforts to attract foreign businesses to the new Shanghai Free Trade Zone, there is worry that China’s, and now Shanghai’s, reputation for unhealthy air may be a deterrent. Then there’s tourism. Foreign visitors to China were down in 2013 by 5% in the country as a whole and by a full 10.3% in Beijing. Media-drenched events like the January 2013 airpocalypse have likely played a sizable role here.

To what extent does the Chinese public recognize and acknowledge a problem with air pollution?

Recognition of environmental problems appears to be gaining considerable momentum. After all, when the airpocalypse turns day into night and the air into a smoking lounge, people are bound to notice. In a 2013 survey conducted in China by the Pew Research Center, 47% of respondents rated air pollution a “very big problem,” an increase of 11% over the previous year and 16% over 2008. [4] Pollution now gets a lot of air time on social media sites. The chatter—especially on a bad-air day—can be intense. For example, for the week running from June 28 to July 4, 2013, my search for the two terms “PM2.5” and “air pollution” yielded more than 280,000 posts on China’s Twitter-like weibo. Comments ran the gamut: some posts asked why air quality should be so bad in the summer when burning coal isn’t a factor; some sought advice about which face mask or air purifier to buy; some asked whether the air inside a shuttered house is any healthier than the air outside; some talked about emigrating; and some pleaded with the Beijing leadership to take responsibility (e.g., “It’s summer and the sky’s been dark for almost a week. You should stop deceiving the people and explain the reason for it and fix it. It’s only then that you’ll be good leaders”).

The number of environmental NGOs has grown dramatically in recent years, and protests over environmental issues have become more frequent. People have taken to the streets to express opposition to the building of coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators, chemical plants, oil refineries, and the like. Yang Zhaofei, vice-chair of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, estimates that environmental protests have increased an average of 29% annually since 1996 and that 2011 alone witnessed an increase of a mind-boggling 120%. [5] According to Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the Communist Party’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, pollution has now displaced land disputes as the leading cause of social unrest in China. [6]

Do environmental NGOs in China play a role in addressing pollution challenges?

Environmental NGOs are a relatively recent phenomenon in China. The first to be established was the Friends of Nature in 1994. Since then the number has grown wildly. Today, less than two decades later, there are roughly 3,500 registered environmental NGOs, and at least as many unregistered ones. Domestic NGOs like Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), and the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims have been especially effective in turning the spotlight on the problems associated with air pollution. For instance, in December 2011, before the Beijing government agreed to monitor and publicize the city’s PM2.5 levels, Green Beagle bought its own monitoring device, loaned it to residents around the city, and posted their readings on its website. The initiative generated considerable controversy while raising netizen awareness of PM2.5. A month and a half later Beijing was releasing its own hourly readings of PM2.5 to the public. IPE, directed by the prominent environmentalist Ma Jun, maintains an updated map of air and water quality for every region of China. Included in IPE’s China Pollution Map Database, available very publicly on its website, are the names of all the plants and corporations—both multinational and Chinese—that are in violation of environmental standards. To get off this “blacklist,” a corporation or plant must take corrective action. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the potential damage to the corporation’s image and public reputation can be incentive enough for it to clean up its offending activities.

Foreign NGOs such as the World-Wide Fund for Nature, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Defense Fund, and Greenpeace have also established a presence in China. These international NGOs work hand-in hand with domestic ones, at times providing them with financial and administrative support. The NRDC and Greenpeace have been especially active in researching and, importantly, publicizing the effects of China’s coal consumption on air, water, and soil quality and human health, not just in China but globally. These organizations have been among the most persuasive and insistent of the growing chorus of voices calling for China to wean itself from its present lethal dependence on coal.

This is part one of a two-part interview with Daniel K. Gardner. In part two, Gardner explains how the Chinese government has responded to the country’s air pollution crisis and what challenges it will face in implementing policies and measures developed to address the problem. He also discusses the impact of China’s air pollution not only on its Asian neighbors but also on the United States. Read part two.

This interview was conducted by Claire Topal, Senior Advisor for International Health at NBR, and Yeasol Chung, a former intern for NBR's Center for Health and Aging.


[1] The PM2.5 level is the standard measure of air quality, referring to the number of micrograms of fine particulate matter—particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers—per cubic meter.

[2] Yuyu Chen, Avraham Ebenstein, Michael Greenstone, and Hongbin Li, “Evidence on the Impact of Sustained Exposure to Air Pollution on Life Expectancy from China’s Huai River Policy,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110, no. 32 (2013): 12936–41,

[3] “Global Burden of Disease Study 2010,” Lancet, December 13, 2012,

[4] Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, “Environmental Concerns on the Rise in China: Many Also Worried about Inflation, Inequality, Corruption,” September 19, 2013,

[5] Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, “Environmental Concerns on the Rise in China.”

[6] Song Jiang, “A Bay of Pigs Moment,” Economist, March 12, 2013,

This is part one of a two-part interview with Daniel K. Gardner. In part two, Gardner explains how the Chinese government has responded to the country’s air pollution crisis and what challenges it will face in implementing policies and measures developed to address the problem. He also discusses the impact of China’s air pollution not only on its Asian neighbors but also on the United States. Read part two.

Daniel K. Gardner is the Dwight W. Morrow Professor of History and East Asian Studies at Smith College. He specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of premodern China and has written extensively on China’s pollution challenges. Professor Gardner has also authored numerous books and articles on the Confucian and Neo-Confucian tradition in China. He holds a PhD in Chinese History from Harvard University.