Air defence

Other cities want to copy Beijing’s success and turn their skies ‘APEC Blue’

A security personnel walks near Tiananmen Gate on a heavily hazy day in Beijing

Feeling (less) blue again: another post-APEC air alert occurred this week

What does APEC stand for? In China it has come to mean “Air Pollution Eventually Controlled”.

The recent summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Beijing brought about one of the longest pollution-free periods since the 2008 Olympics. For just over two weeks the Chinese capital enjoyed PM2.5 counts that wouldn’t look out of place in many cities in Western Europe.

A new phrase, “APEC Blue”, was coined to describe the phenomenon (see WiC260).

Some of the measures instigated to achieve APEC Blue were draconian. Schools were closed, cremations were banned and driving restrictions were doubled. A spectacular firework display celebrated the event itself, but people living near to the hotel where world leaders were staying (in the rural district of Beijing called Huairou) were told to keep cooking to a minimum, and to stop using wood or coal-fired heating.

Production at almost 10,000 factories was halted and 4,000 were reduced to non-polluting work. To make sure these rules were observed, 16 teams of inspectors carried out spot checks day and night.

The campaign to clear the skies required mobilisation of local government at all levels. “This is an air (quality) defence war of the largest scale,” suggested China Environmental News, which is run by the environment ministry. The newspaper said preparations started early in 2013 and that President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqing had personally signed off on the various directives to ensure that officials understood it to be a “political mission” of the highest order.

So talked about was APEC Blue that the term is now on course to be named as China’s “word of the year” by state media (each December a term is picked that best describes the zeitgeist). That’s no small feat for a phrase only coined this month.

Inspired by the outcome, many have come to the conclusion that the iron-fisted approach is the only way to tackle air pollution effectively. They are also asking why Chinese nationals can’t get the same protection from pollution afforded to the APEC delegates this month.

In one example, Li Guofa, a 59 year-old from Zhengzhou, wrote an open letter to his city mayor Ma Yi this week accusing him of not doing enough.

“The government should follow people’s wishes to control air pollution, even at the cost of lower GDP and revenue. This may not make your term’s achievements dazzling, but what’s more important than citizens’ health and safety?” he demanded, adding that Zhengzhou should folllow Beijing’s APEC experience and introduce stringent measures to achieve a bluer sky.

The online letter became a sensation in social media, generating more than 10,000 comments from different cities. The public pressure was enough to force Ma to reply to Li’s missive, promising that Zhengzhou would “seriously consider his constructive suggestions” to combat air pollution.

Back in Beijing the immediate battle against pollution is over but the war goes on. And not wholly successfully, either. Two weeks after the APEC delegation left the city, the capital has already suffered its second bad air alert. Perhaps that’s why officials are picking new targets in the struggle. A campaign is underway to remove the most trusted source of air quality readings, the US embassy feed, from local smartphone apps. “I guess the government wants us to think we live in a permanent state of APEC Blue,” one angry user wrote on weibo.

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