By Tom Phillips
Linfen was called China’s Chernobyl—a putrid, smog-smothered hellhole that became known as the most polluted place on earth.
At their worst, the skies over Linfen, in China’s coal-rich answer to the Industrial Revolution Black Country, made even the most nightmarish Turner canvas appear mild.
“Linfen used to be known as the ‘floral city,’” a reporter from the China Business Herald lamented in 2004 after it was officially crowned China’s “champion of contamination.” “Now the ‘floral city’ exists in name only.” But earlier this month the skies over Linfen, in Shanxi province, were a perfect blue and inside the city’s environmental protection bureau Yang Zhaofeng celebrated what he said was a remarkable transformation.
“Our air quality has improved greatly,” beamed the bureau’s affable vice director, boasting that the previous year had seen a record 108 days of “Grade 1” quality air.
On Nov. 8 Beijing will host China’s long-awaited 18th Communist Party Congress, ushering in a new era and a new generation of leaders who should steer the country for the next decade.
Challenges abound for the incoming leaders of the world’s second-largest economy, but high on their list of priorities will be trying to clear the country’s notoriously polluted skies.
Environmentalists warn that public awareness and frustration about air pollution is growing, as are the risks to Chinese health.
“Even if we can manage to keep the country’s smoking rate flat, the lung cancer rate is expected to keep rising for 20 or 30 years and worsening air pollution could be the major culprit,” Shi Yuankai, the vice president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Cancer Hospital, admitted in an interview with the China Daily last year.
Yang, Linfen’s environment chief, said that as China battled to rectify its toxic environment, his city could offer some clues. “As long as leaders attach great importance [to it], the environment can improve.” Linfen’s dramatic turnaround began in 2004 after it was named and shamed by Beijing as the most polluted of 113 Chinese cities.
Domestic and international humiliation followed as the Blacksmith Institute, a U.S. environmental group, compared Linfen to some of the filthiest places on earth, including Chernobyl and Kyrgyzstan’s Mailuu-Suu, a place notorious for its radioactive waste dumps.
“Shanxi felt the pain, indeed,” Yang recalled, quoting the Chinese sage Confucius to explain how his government was spurred into action by an avalanche of bad press. “Knowing shame is akin to courage.” Desperate to change Linfen’s fortunes, authorities launched an ongoing drive to clear its skies and its name. They called it the “Take off the Black Hat” campaign and the changes came immediately, Yang claimed.
Factories that had once belched fumes into Linfen’s skies, fouled its rivers, and contaminated its soil were forced to shut down or relocate.
Twelve power stations were closed. A crackdown on illegal and polluting coal mines saw the number of mines slashed from around 390 to 128. Villagers were weaned off burning coal at homes and solar water heaters were installed on their roofs.
Crucially, too, the promotion prospects of government officials were for the first time tied to their ability to meet environmental goals.
Jia Peiliang, the official in charge of pollution monitoring, said technology also played a leading role in Linfen’s dramatic cleanup.
Authorities could now monitor sulphur dioxide emissions and water discharge in real time with a network of monitoring stations and surveillance cameras, Jia said. “We have set up six monitoring stations, which show us what is happening across the whole city.” This year Linfen was included in national pilot project monitoring for PM2.5, minuscule airborne particles that have been linked to heart and lung disease and diabetes.
Nearly a decade on from its humiliation, Linfen is even trying to reinvent itself as a green city. Yang claimed solar energy had been introduced in hotels, guesthouses and “many households”—including his own. Small wind farms are planned for Linfen’s Puxian and Guxian counties. Some former factory owners have even branched out into “green landscaping.” Last year a seven-mile-long park opened on the banks of the River Fen, which flows through Linfen.
In Linfen’s Beilu village—home to around 1,700 people and once known as one of the region’s “cancer villages”—locals agreed things were looking up.
“The factories in our neighborhood have all gone, the coal plant, the iron foundry, about a dozen of them,” said Zhang Fanzhi, 58. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have blue skies. Now it has improved a lot. Yet a white shirt can still last seven days in Henan [province] but only three days here.” At the health clinic, GP Wang Ping said many locals had blamed nearby factories for the high incidence of cancer. “If 10 people died each year, then half of them died of cancer,” she said, adding that several years had now passed without new cases being reported.
Independent experts say Linfen’s transformation is more than government spin. Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmentalist, confirmed genuine changes appeared to be taking place.
“I think we need to recognize a lot of effort has been made there to deal with those extreme cases of pollution. It used to be that a lot of those factories simply would not treat their discharge or emissions at all. Now, I believe the government is making an effort to deal with them and some of the worst cases and factories have been shut down,” said Ma, whose group, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, monitors government data on air and water pollution.
Still, Ma said, “some questions” remained over the reliability of air quality data. “[If] the monitoring stations have been moved from more polluted regions to some less polluted regions that will affect the data quality.” Ma also said it was not clear if the situation in Shanxi’s most polluted cities had dramatically improved or if other regions, with faster growth of power and heavy and chemical industries, were getting worse. Data suggested worsening air pollution levels in Inner Mongolia and Shandong, he said.
Nor are all of Linfen’s long-suffering residents convinced. In Xiakang Village locals attributed the day’s blue sky to a recent rainstorm and laughed at the idea that their city had become a model of green living.
“Nothing has changed,” shouted 60-year-old Duan Xiaobiao, whose village—sandwiched between a water-treatment plant and an illegal dump—hints at China’s balancing act between the clean and the filthy. “It’s exactly the same as before.
“The tap water is not clean—when we boil the water, we can see a layer on the surface. You should take a bottle of our tap water back to test,” he suggested.
Yang admitted Linfen was a work in progress but said his city was proof that a balance between coal-fueled economic development and environmental protection could be struck. “Black and green can coexist,” he said. “We just hope the skies will [keep getting] bluer.”