In the spring of 2015, the conversation on pollution in China kicked into an even higher gear with an online documentary film, Under the Dome, by a former TV journalist, Chai Jing. The documentary did for air pollution in China what Al Gore’s 2006 climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth, did to raise consciousness about global warming. The movie was significant as a major intervention by a Chinese film-maker aimed at a Chinese audience.

Under the Dome features a casually dressed Chai Jing reciting a litany of hard truths about environmental damage to a riveted audience. Striking a chord with parents, the group that is arguably most attuned to pollution’s adverse effects, she begins by talking about the fears she had for her unborn daughter, after weeks of reporting in China’s more polluted areas while pregnant. Her daughter needed an operation immediately after birth for a tumour (although the link to air pollution is not established). Later in the film, Chai shows an interview she conducted in 2004 with a six-year-old girl. ‘Have you ever seen a real star?’ Chai asks the girl. ‘No,’ replies the child. ‘What about blue sky?’ ‘I’ve seen one that’s a little blue,’ the girl says. ‘And what about white clouds?’ Chai persists. ‘No, I haven’t,’ the child says shaking her head.

When the documentary was released online on 28 February, it generated more than 200 million hits in less than a week, causing the Chinese authorities to block access to it. The viral popularity of the movie was a clear indication of the possibility of environmentalism blossoming into an organized national political movement. The CCP has consistently demonstrated that when confronted with a potential challenge to its authority it moves to clamp down on public expression of this challenge. But often, the Party simultaneously attempts to redress the more egregious aspects of the underlying cause of discontentment as well. This has been the case with air pollution.

The CCP is cognizant that it rules over an increasingly globalized, affluent, urban society. China’s middle classes, the main consumers of the movie, are estimated to number almost half a billion people. As a constituency, the middle class has a stake in the continuation of the political status quo so long as the authorities can deliver both economic growth and social stability. However, this burgeoning class also wants a stronger participative voice in governance. Research shows that the demand for environmental improvement grows as societies become wealthier. Awareness of this desire has prompted the authorities to give environmentally oriented civil society groups more freedom to operate than is the norm for nongovernmental organizations in China.

Clamp down on cars

In cities like Beijing where around 30 per cent of the air pollution is sourced to vehicles, hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks that do not meet these new standards have been taken off the roads. Since 2009, polluting vehicles, identified by a yellow sticker, have been barred from entering the area that lies within the city’s Fifth Ring Road.

In 2011-12, restrictions were placed on car ownership. Beijingers can only buy a new car if they do not already have a vehicle registered under their name. They are then eligible to enter a monthly lottery for licence plates. The Chinese capital has also placed limits on vehicles purchased by government institutions to combat allegations of political privilege. In 2014 Beijing cut the number of new licence plates by 37 per cent over 2011-12, from 240,000 to only 150,000 per year. The city plans to limit vehicle growth to six million by 2017.

In 2013 Beijing announced that total public and private investment in pollution abatement would amount to $163 billion over the next five years. Among the most significant of the pollution-fighting moves during this time was the announcement of regional air quality regulations, which set up structures for ensuring air quality across multiple provincial and urban jurisdictions involving entire airsheds. The interaction across city and state boundaries to address the regional nature of air pollution was momentous.

Although China’s air still tends to be covered negatively in the foreign media, these wideranging measures have begun to pay off . According to NASA satellite observations, PM2.5 levels across China fell by 17 per cent between 2010 and 2015, with quite a dramatic improvement towards 2015 (possibly because the deadline to meet the regulation on installing NOx pollution abatement equipment on power plants was in 2014).

Indeed, 2015 was the best on record in China in terms of particulate matter pollution. Beijing saw a 16 per cent annual fall in PM2.5 levels according to an analysis of air quality data from the US embassy in Beijing by the Paulson Institute and Greenpeace.

Red alerts continue

A lot of people, including friends like Matilde who actually reside in Beijing, find this data difficult to countenance since their lived experience belies it. However, their response is probably shaped by the fact that the winter of 2015 was a particularly polluted one. The year 2015 saw awesome highs and lows: the best summer but also the worst winter ever recorded. Consequently, although the air improved on an average, November and December were still bad enough to trigger Beijing’s first red alerts, the highest tier of the four-colour smog warning system set up in 2013. During these episodes PM2.5 levels exceeded 900 μg/m3 in some parts of the city.

December’s two red alerts led to half the city’s cars being pulled off the roads, and 2100 factories were ordered to stop or scale down production. Primary schools, middle schools and kindergartens were advised to close. Crucially, thirty-three cities in Beijing’s airshed, including Hebei, Henan in central China and Shandong in the east, also imposed similar steps to contain the smog. According to the Beijing government, these measures helped reduce the air pollution by around 30 per cent.

Experts agree that winter’s smog in Beijing in 2015 was partly the result of particularly cold weather. Very cold temperatures help form ice crystals in the air, which act as a catalyst for the production of PM2.5, from emissions of SO2 , NOx and VOCs. PM2.5 in these cases is a secondary pollutant, and high readings of it in the air should not lead to the conclusion that more primary PM2.5 is being emitted. Moreover, in 2015 Beijing saw double the number of winter days with smogforming weather conditions, such as stagnant air and high humidity, compared to 2014.

No shortcuts 

It is clear from China’s battle that there are long time horizons involved in cleaning up air. The world has got used to the CCP pushing through change in China at bullet-train speeds. But there is no shortcut to fighting air pollution. The effects of regulations take years, even decades, to realize. And in the meantime there will be spells when the air can feel as bad as, or even worse than, ever.

In India, we have experienced China-oriented airenfreude along with everyone else. It can be a comfort to think that the Chinese have some real problems too. Aunties in Delhi who are not usually environmental in their outlook almost smirk when chatting with me about Beijing: ‘Oh ho! Such terrible pollution. Tch! Tch!’ But even as we sit smug in our diesel-generator-powered homes, delightedly commiserating about China’s toxic air, India is choking too.

According to NASA satellite data, the PM2.5 levels across India got worse by 13 per cent between 2010 and 2015, while China’s steadily improved. The year 2015 was the worst on record for India in terms of particulate pollution. It was also the first year that the average Indian was exposed to more particulate matter than the average Chinese. There is finally one race in which India seems to be beating China. Unfortunately, this one is a race to the bottom.