Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Political change through smog

Will air quality be the downfall of the Party in China?

China’s Polluted Skies Take On a Darker Meaning for Its Leaders
Red has been considered the color of prosperity and good fortune in China for centuries, and it is also the color of the Communist Party. But this week, the color took on a darker meaning here, as it began to symbolize the failure of the party to rein in toxic smog that regularly endangers the health of hundreds of millions of people in the country’s north.

The Beijing government sounded its first-ever air pollution red alert Monday night, prompting many of the city’s 22 million residents to take precautions through Thursday, when strong winds blew the smog away. The emergency measures ended at noon...

Behavior changed, and so did the mind-set, in another of the touchstone moments that have occurred regularly since 2012, when the party began relaxing its tight control over information on air quality.

Since then, crucial decisions made every few months by senior Chinese officials have broadened the public’s understanding of the environmental degradation afflicting the nation, and they have given people more tools to gauge methods for protecting themselves. But those decisions — the red alert being the latest — have also raised questions about whether the party is up to the herculean challenge of cleaning up China’s environment.

On no other issue are President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders forced to walk such a fine line, between controlling information that has the potential to undermine their legitimacy and doling it out to increasingly anxious citizens who consider such disclosures essential…

[The] mayor of Beijing, Wang Anshun, has acknowledged that public environmental awareness, while perhaps leading to more criticism of China’s development path and weak regulatory efforts, is needed to help solve the crisis.

“We must take effective measures and enforce them with no reductions,” he said at a meeting on Dec. 4, according to an official news report. “We must accept supervision from the public and the media, in order to win the battle against the imminent heavy air pollution.”

Mr. Wang made earlier remarks that showed he knew what is at stake — perhaps nothing less than the faith of the people in the party…

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