Crisis by the Numbers

The excellent ChinaFile project has a new conversation based on the following question:

Why’s China’s Smog Crisis Still Burning So Hot?

The core answers are already provided by Alex Wang, Isabel Hilton, Jeremy Goldkorn, and Shai Oster. China has developed in a way that allows it to show rapid growth in GDP but has come at a dreadful environmental cost. Why that’s difficult to move away from is well-known and well-covered.

What I think helps explain the political importance of the environmental degradation and the unprecedented efforts that the regime has put forward to address it, however, is something slightly different. It’s the fact that the pollution problem has a number. The PM2.5 number associated with the amount of pollution of a particular small size (2.5 microns) means that it isn’t just individuals complaining vaguely about an inability to see the building across the street, pilots unable to see runways, or people holding out their hands yet unable to see them, a quantifiable figure is out there. And that figure is a problem, a problem that counts because it can be counted and has been. It is politically difficult and troublesome because it is a publicly released figure. Everyone knows when the air is bad in a city, but now the pollution number is known precisely and by everyone, even those thousands of miles away looking over the Pacific. The quantified and public nature of the problem turns what were dispersed complaints about air quality, a national political issue. For that reason, I think that the regime will follow through on its promises and move to make the numbers go down and the air quality improve.

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