Dancing in the Smog

dancing-circle.jpgI’ve visited China a number of times now. On the whole, I find the people to be courteous and kind, thoughtful and even charming.  And many seem to thrive on getting up early in the morning to exercise.

In every Chinese city that I’ve visited over the years, if you get up early enough in the morning and go to one of the parks, you will find people — working people, retirees, students, housewives — playing tai chi or other martial arts, doing chi kung (energy and breathing exercises), moving through traditional dances with fans or scarves, or, as in this photo, practicing ballroom dancing or other modern dances.

These folks were dancing in the park from about 6:30 a.m. to perhaps 8 a.m., directly below our hotel room of a few nights in the ancient capital of Luoyang, a relatively small city of about 6 million people in Henan Province in the eastern interior of China.  (That’s a small city for China but with more people than in the whole of the province of British Columbia, Canada, for instance, where I live.)

There’s a lot of smog in Luoyang.  In fact, from the province’s capital Zhengzhou two hours to the east by freeway, there’s a lot of smog everywhere.  Thick smog.  In the cities you might expect some, but it extends throughout the rural countryside everywhere you look.  It’s not fog; there’s always that sepia tinge.

close-circle.jpgIt was a sunny day, the morning of the photo of the dancer’s park.  I could tell by the weather report and the eventual brightness.  But in the dozen days of our stay in China, most of them ostensibly sunny, I only saw blue sky once, in Shanghai when the wind came up.

This is consistent with our travel previously in China from Beijing in the north to Guilin in the south, taking short hops by air or rail.  Always smog, everywhere.  In some places, sandstorms may contribute to it.  It has to have an impact on the health of people.  I pity those with asthma or other respiratory diseases. 

Luoyang was our base as one day we visited the Shaolin Temple.  It is up in the foothills, and the smog backed off some to permit a partial view of the landscape, but even so, I thought this could not be healthy for the athletes training at the Temple and at the martial arts academies in the nearby town.

I remember reading a few years ago the book The Coming Collapse of China by Gordon G. Chang, written in 2001.  He predicted that in five to 10 years, China as a nation could well break down as its government continues to lose internal credibility and as its state-run businesses and banks, sustained in many cases by corruption, are forced to compete and integrate with the world economy.  He had many good points, but I think the institutions of China are proving more resilient than he predicted.

I think more to the point, and linked to how the economy is managed by the Communist Party, is the ecological brinkmanship now being carried out in China.  The omnipresent smog is just one sign of this. 

In his book Collapse: How Nations Choose or Fail to Survive, published in late 2004, Jared Diamond takes a look at China along with several other case studies.  (I have not read the Diamond book in its entirety, but I have read reviews and excerpts.) He notes China’s style of authoritarian central control has slowed population growth, but that it is unlikely to curb environmental excesses if that would seriously affect the growing economy. 

The economy predominantly depends on burning high-sulfur coal to fuel its industrial production.  Government officials are promoted if they raise production.  The equation is unfortunately simple and corruption is rife.

With 1.3 billion people, if China were to obtain the consumption level of  so-called developed countries, it would double global resource use all by itself.

(According to one recent study I’ve read, the world on average is using up a quarter more resources than is sustainable right now.  Our common largesse, of water, soil, and air, is being diminished rapidly.  Canada, where I live, has one of the worst records for the size of its “ecological footprint.”)

smog-trees.jpgRichard Kaplan in his review of the Diamond book, calls China’s case the most pivotal. “China’s leaders have had the organizational capacity to create gargantuan tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward, when 20 million people were killed between 1958 and 1962, or to take positive steps on a similarly grand level, as when they instituted a national ban on logging in 1998.”

Several times this year and last, China’s extreme water pollution has gained newsworthy status in the West.  Just arriving home a few days ago, I read of contaminated water constantly being piped into one of China’s major rivers.  People could tell something was wrong because of the unnatural red colour of the polluted water at the outfall.  Local authorities were either unwilling or unable to say what the pollutant was.

The frequency of major water pollution like this in China has reached as high as an event every two or three days.  Many will remember the Songhua (or Sungari) River pollution incident of last November.  The river was contaminated by a benzene explosion in a plant owned by the China National Petroleum Corporation’s petrochemical company.  The explosion caused hundreds  of tons of benzene to contaminate the river, and water supplies, downstream.  Millions of people in the city of Harbin went without water for days.

Apparently there are more than 20,000 petrochemical plants built next to rivers, including 2000 along reservoirs and near heavily populated areas.

According to one UN report of several years ago, 80 percent of China’s rivers no longer support fish.

Overgrazing, resulting dust bowl conditions and global warming are contributing to another aspect of the environmental crisis in which China finds itself.  Deserts are growing.   For instance, as expanding deserts have encroached on the city of Dunhuang, in the northwestern province of Gansu, the city has created a ‘sand park’ where people ride camels and sleigh down dunes.

Sand from the violent sandstorms of China’s expanding deserts, along with air pollution containing heavy metals such as mercury, have been detected on the west coast of North America.  The Beijing Airport closes quite often due to sandstorms and people in the capital of China are forced to stay indoors.  A million acres of land every year is lost to the deserts, China itself admits.  The government is contemplating the coming reality of ‘ecological refugees.’

As China’s arable land declines, it will be forced to import grain and other foodstuffs, raising world prices and affecting the affordability of food for the world’s poor, among others.

China is not alone in having environmental crises, of course.  I learned at a conference I attended this past week in Vancouver how global warming is changing right now the very climactic zones in which we live.  Cedar trees, emblematic of BC’s rainforest, in parts of Vancouver Island are dying as the weather changes to more rain in the winter and drier conditions, even droughts, in the summer.  In the drier southeastern part of British Columbia, the amount couple-dance.jpgof water available cannot be stretched any more to accommodate even our modest, compared to China, increases in population.  The forests of BC are in the grip of a pine beetle infestation so great that it threatens to destroy most of the province’s pine forests.  The beetle is killed by cold winters.  There hasn’t been a cold winter for quite a few years.

Returning to Luoyang… Its smog was so intense that I could detect the haze in the morning even in the corners of the palatial lobby of the hotel where we stayed.  But it seemed to be a subject impolite to raise in anything more than the most muted way among our Chinese travelling companions, although running into an American tourist from California, it was almost the first thing he talked about.

It may be that China foreshadows our own environmental future.  At the very least, that nation is engaged in a grand enterprise and experiment and crisis that will affect not only their lives and the lives of their children, but also our own.

Explore posts in the same categories: China, Environment, Travel

9 Comments on “Dancing in the Smog”

  1. tom o'leary Says:

    The pine beetle situation is a nightmare. It would be wise to replant the devastated areas with a much broader mix of trees than the current few susceptible species.
    You talk of cedar trees- can you be more specific? ie; botanical name.

    thanks, tomo

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi tomo

    I believe it is Thuja plicata (Western cedar). Here’s a publication with some discussion of the matter:


  3. bloglily Says:

    Thanks for this piece — it’s remarkable to think of all that haze, everywhere. Sort of like London during the industrial revolution but on a much larger scale.

  4. sputnki Says:

    Wow! Amazing pictures and certainly food for thought. I remember my first trip to Europe (I live on the other side of Canada, in Nova Scotia) thinking how there was a thin layer of brown in the sky everywhere. Travelling to California I remember flying into LAX during one of those times when the smog is concentrated and it felt as though we had flown into a brown soup.

    But it was always something that was still separate, apart from the blue skies and clear air. It sounds like there you can have your sky any colour you want, as long as it’s brown…

    Reading your piece made me think about the collapse of the cities of the Maya during the “Terminal Classic” period. The two main theories basically fall along “ecologic” and “non-ecologic” lines. Personally I always think things like that happen because a number of factors combine and amplify each other, but I couldn’t help think there were shades of that in your descriptions of China today.


  5. fencer Says:

    Hi BL,

    I think it will be a race between serious crisis and China getting enough of a handle on the problem. There’s also the swelling number of vehicles. I swear Luoyang at rush hour was just as congested as Vancouver, and that can’t help air quality either.



    Hi Doug,

    I think all of us are going to be seeing some portion of environmental upheaval wherever we are, but the problems in China appear really serious…


  6. qazse Says:

    Brown skies and dying ecosystems are a small price to pay for this economy built on plastic. It is so shiney and bright. I love it!

  7. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Yes, it is all rather dismaying at times. We’re encouraged to be so superficial.


  8. Eliza Says:

    Hi Fencer, dance and smog, ecological damage and economic boom, cultural preservation and modernity – all issues that face developing countries, mine not excluded (Malaysia). How China progresses will depend on which factors their government chooses to emphasise – at this moment, all eyes I believe are on business. However, environmental factors will unfortunately not be restricted to the country’s borders – it will affect neighbours in the medium term and the world in the longer term. For Malaysia, we just suffered through two months of haze, due to open burning in a neighbouring country and ASEAN has to step in to insist this recurring problem be remedied. This is a great write up – thank you for the links to the books.

  9. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Thanks for your comments…

    I hope the haze lessens where you are. Here in Vancouver we can get some bad smog during a heat wave in the summer, but nothing like what people were suffering through in China.


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