China’s environmental conditions and policies often make international headlines. Heavy smog can reduce visibility in the country’s industrialized urban areas for days. At the University of Chicago’s Center in Beijing, I experienced the effects of this pollution firsthand with ten other students on a study abroad program. Located on the 20th floor of Renmin University’s cultural building, the center offers a wide view overlooking Haidian District in the northwestern part of Beijing. Cars can seem to disappear into the dense smog as they drive along Zhongguancun Street, and on the rare occasions of clear skies, mountains and sections of the Great Wall are visible in the outskirts. But what passes as a good day in Beijing is four times worse than the most polluted American city .
As students from smog-free Chicago, we were unaccustomed to the heavy pollution. We checked the air quality more frequently than we checked the weather. Pollution in China is officially labeled as “unhealthy” once the air quality index exceeds 150, but in reality the pollution often exceeds this threshold, with Beijing’s air quality indices reaching “very unhealthy” levels above 200 so often that Tao Ran, an economics professor at Renmin University, warned us to “get out of Beijing”.
Beijing residents have attempted to mitigate the effects of pollution in various ways, usually by wearing a facemask, and many offices and homes are equipped with air filters. A more novel solution can be found at the International School of Beijing, where a dome surrounds the recreational areas and playground to provide an air-conditioned environment . But the health risks in Beijing remain, especially for poorer residents who cannot afford air filters. The problem is unlikely to go away without the help of the nation’s policymaking community.
A study by US researchers recently concluded that air pollution from burning coal has reduced the life expectancy in northern China by 5.5 years, compared to the less-polluted South. After a growing outcry on social media, the central government has strengthened its annual targets for air pollution reduction, raising public optimism that China will reduce its reliance on coal-based energy .
Although officials have already committed to cutting coal consumption, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) nonetheless continue to play crucial roles in promoting political reform, transparency, and accountability. There are roughly 2,000 registered environmental NGOs, engaging in environmental activism that involves a wide community of scientists, the media, multinational companies, international NGOs, and government agencies. The State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) supports and works closely with NGOs to expose poor performance of environmental protection bureaus at the local levels .
As my study abroad group learned during a trip to the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, the evolving environmental movement in China continues to face challenges. A large exhibit explains Beijing’s efforts to become more eco-friendly, but the displays have not been updated since the city hosted the Olympics in 2008. Observers suggest that NGOs can only identify, but not solve problems. Chinese NGOs also rely heavily on international funding, and local critics may suspect such NGOs of being subjected to too much foreign influence, especially as domestic and foreign organizations disagree on strategy and capabilities. Even though the central government recognizes that NGOs fill a gap in the state’s regulatory capacities, it still remains wary of the political power of environmental activists. All NGOs must report their membership, sources of funding, and activities to a government sponsor, such as SEPA .
Until the state government relaxes its restrictions on NGOs and supports development, the environmental movement may remain limited in size. Meanwhile, environmental NGOs have shifted their focus to more sensitive and challenging areas, such as filing lawsuits against polluting factories. They have also circumvented the difficulties of NGO registration by registering as businesses or not registering at all, but operate under the risk that political forces could pull back their efforts or shut them down entirely.