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The Mayor of Beijing Says His City Is 'Unlivable'

Mayor Wang Anshun's comments come amidst growing recognition by China's political elites that the country has serious environmental problems that must be addressed.

by Matt Smith
Jan 28 2015, 7:30pm

Image via Reuters

China's smog-shrouded, overcrowded, traffic-choked capital has become unlivable.

And that's not the assessment of some tourist or disgruntled cubicle-dweller: That's the mayor talking.

Speaking to Beijing's local Communist Party conference this week, Mayor Wang Anshun said efforts to limit the city's notorious air pollution have fallen short of targets and that the city faced "worrisome" environmental problems.

"In establishing a top-tier, internationalized livable and harmonious city, Beijing is currently establishing a system of standards, something that is very important," Wang said in comments reported by state news outlets. "At the present time, however, Beijing is not a livable city."

Wang's blunt assessment was the latest in a series of efforts by Chinese leaders to get a handle on the environmental problems that accompany its rapid economic development and urbanization. Jennifer Turner, head of the China Environment Forum at the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center, called Wang's comments "nicely refreshing," if light on detail.

"There's no way of hiding the fact that the air quality is really bad now that there's some transparency," Turner told VICE News. Though China recently tried to squelch a mobile phone application that reported the US Embassy's air-quality data along with government figures, she said the government has set up regular monitoring, and people are allowed to buy their own monitors.

"It's the lingering that's killing them," she said. "Before, it would spike up and down. The spikes are higher, and they're longer now."

Beijing shuttered nearly 400 polluting factories and got rid of 476,000 old cars in 2014, the state news agency Xinhua reported; it also denied permits for more than 3,700 new businesses that were on a list of "prohibited or restricted operations."

But the city of 21 million-plus is not only wreathed in auto exhaust, emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial smokestacks also pollute its air. China is now the world's largest energy consumer as well as its most populous country, and nearly 70 percent of its electricity comes from coal, according to US estimates.

Wang has vowed to limit the number of new cars in the city, remove 180,000 old ones from the roads, and rein in the city's population growth to fight those problems. But while he may be able to idle old cars and push smoky factories out of his city, he can't do it all.

"He's the mayor. He's not in charge of how coal is produced or not produced," Turner told VICE News.

Turner said as many as 350 million Chinese are expected to move to cities in the coming decade — a figure comparable to the entire population of the United States. Meanwhile, rising illnesses among its own population and health concerns from international businesses have pushed Chinese authorities to take on their environmental problems.

Here's why China's climate pledge might not be such a great leap forward. Read more here.

Turner said Wang's remarks show Chinese city leaders are speaking "as if they're being made accountable."

"Anyone who's going to the mayor of Bejing or Shenzhen or Shanghai, these are not shrinking-violet types," she said. "They're savvy and they talk straighter."

Chinese President Xi Xinping said last week that his country should protect its environment "the same way as one treats his own life." Speaking at a lakeside village in southwestern China, Xi urged provincial officials that if he came back years later, "the water should be even clearer than today. If not, I will hold them accountable."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl

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Coal
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Beijing
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