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Asia Minute: The Politics of China’s Air Pollution

Leo Fung / Flickr
Leo Fung / Flickr

Residents of many parts of China started the New Year as they ended the old one: choking on air pollution. That includes people in the nation’s capital—who face increasing air quality challenges in 2017. HPR’s Bill Dorman has more in today’s Asia Minute.


It’s a familiar habit for Beijing residents and visitors: checking the latest readings of air quality and the level of something called PM 2.5.

Those are small particles, tiny pieces of what scientists call particulate matter that can damage the lungs.  They measure around 2-and-a half microns in size—about thirty times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The World Health Organization says the safe recommended level for concentration of PM 2.5 is 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

On New Year’s Day, Beijing recorded readings FIFTY TIMES that level.

Monday was slightly better, but forecasters say heavy pollution is expected through most of this week.

It’s a similar story across nine provinces in northern and central China, flight schedules disrupted, some roads closed because of poor visibility.

Part of the reason for the pollution spike is seasonal—increased coal burning as temperatures drop.

The issue is not only an environmental problem, but increasingly a political one.

Public complaints have been rising along with frustration about promises for improvements made by the ruling communist party.

The topic will likely get more official attention before this autumn’s meeting of the National Congress of the Communist Party—China’s highest level political gathering that takes place once every five years.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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