The meeting of leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region got underway Monday at the APEC summit in Beijing. As has been the case for the last few days, the skies above the capital shone a bright blue – a sight all too rare in a city notorious for noxious pollution. Beneath these glorious skies, the ring roads that encircle Beijing ran smoothly, unensnared by the usual rush-hour gridlock. The successful transformation of China’s capital in time for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is testament not only to the awesome power of the Chinese state, but also to the paranoia that afflicts China’s rulers when their country is on show to the outside world. The skies above Beijing may shine bright and clear, but the big picture is just as murky as the air usually enshrouding the city.
It takes impressive technological capabilities and powers of enforcement to reduce pollution frequently ten times in excess of what the WHO has designated as safe standards to levels that befit human respiration. In terms of blue sky technology, aircraft must fly into clouds and seed them with silver oxide in order to induce rainfall. This is no mean feat, but perhaps the ability of local authorities to shut down factories in and around Beijing, enforce a ban on alternate days on cars with even or odd-numbered license plates, and command all state-owned enterprises, local government offices and educational institutions to go on holiday for 6 days is even more impressive. As a symbol of the power of the modern Chinese state, the blue skies above Beijing are awe-inspiring.
This edition of the APEC summit is hardly the first time that Beijing has deployed its capability to determine the weather (which would sound like science fiction were this any other country). The outside world first picked up on this during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when skies shone blue despite heavy pollution in the weeks and months prior to the games. More recent events have indicated that the power to alter the weather may not be limited to clearing the skies of cloud cover and pollution. On October 1st, China’s National Day, temperatures dropped from the low twenties to single digits, accompanied by blustery winds and freezing rain. Was this an effort to quell any possibility of an emergence of the protests that were captivating Hong Kong? A further indicator came on October 11, when pollution levels that were high even for Beijing threatened to lead to the cancellation of a showpiece football match between Brazil and Argentina. Miraculously, high winds began to blow just hours before kick-off, restoring the air to healthy levels. As with National Day, it cannot be said with certainty that this was the work of the state, but given the power that the government manages to exert over the colour of its skies, it is difficult not to extrapolate.
While the blue skies that have shone above Beijing for the past few days have made the capital a much more pleasant place to be over the past few days, the azure tint has come at some costs. Of the more than ten million working-age residents of Beijing, many are spending almost a week on holiday – which is not necessarily paid. Employees in some cities in the surrounding region have also been given vacations, while manufacturing industries in what is known as the Jing-Jin-Ji region, comprising Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, have been put on hold for around two weeks. The economic cost of this holiday is massive, and all the more significant given recent forecasts of a slowdown for China’s economy. On a macro level, the impact of the measures required to turn the skies ‘APEC blue’ is considerable, but is even more damaging on a micro level. Night-time lows in Beijing and the surrounding area are currently around freezing, but the local government does not usually turn on the state heating network until November 15 every year. It has turned the system on early during unseasonably cold weather in previous years, but due to the importance of coal and gas – both ordinarily contributors to the capital’s air pollution – Beijing residents have endured a cold few days. While many eagerly await turn-on day, it will surely also bring with it heavy pollution, as the heating system springs into life, regular volumes of traffic return to the roads, and local industry seeks to make up for lost time. For ordinary residents of Beijing, there is little positive to come of APEC, save for a few days of blue skies.
Given the impact of short-term pollution management on its people, why does the state pursue crystal-clear skies with quite such ardour? It seems that China’s rulers are uncomfortable with presenting the country in its normal guise before a global audience. The same awkward attempt at varnishing the nation’s capital was a hallmark of the 2008 Olympic Games, and is a practice which points to the paranoia has afflicted recent administrations, despite China’s impressive growth in areas such as the economy, military and education in recent years. It is also a woefully unsuccessful practice: many of the dignitaries and journalists attending the APEC summit, which is taking place at a purpose-built resort on the outskirts of Beijing, come to China frequently and have borne witness to pollution here. Beyond this, such an unsubtle attempt at managing the weather is cannon fodder for foreign media constantly on the lookout for a new China story, as well as for netizens who gripe freely about the air throughout the year anyway. Scrubbing China’s skies clean for every headline international event may actually increase media attention on the pollution situation in Beijing.
It is a shame that the administration does not present a warts-and-all version of itself before the watching world. Doing so, China could claim credit for confronting its pollution problem head-on, something which it is actually doing on a day-to-day basis, particularly in Beijing. Subway expansion aims to reduce car dependence, temporary bans are applied to barbecuing and straw-burning, and capital is pumped into renewable energy and clean vehicle development. Fundamental problems such as an economy that relies on manufacturing and an energy model that cannot do without coal are addressed respectively by a transition to an economy focused on hi-tech and service industries and by developing more efficient coal and gas usage in addition to renewables and nuclear. Furthermore, air pollution information accessibility in China is some of the best in the world, surpassed perhaps only by the United States. It is unfortunate that China’s rulers are so concerned with face-saving, because they and their country would receive a lot more credit if they presented their true face to the world.
The sky shone blue over Beijing once more Tuesday as regional leaders signed trade deals, paving the way for a possible APEC free trade zone in years to come. An opening of markets in Asia-Pacific would be helpful to China’s economy, but progress towards this and other goals of China’s foreign policy would be much smoother had the government in Beijing cease stage-managing showpiece events quite such a degree. Clearing the air and emptying the streets is an indication of China’s awesome power but also its concerning self-doubt. With a touch more self-confidence, the skies above Beijing would shine a truer shade of blue and Beijing would more easily be afforded a place among global powers.