Remember when the Marlboro Men, the rugged, cowboy-looking actors hired to glamorize cigarettes, kept dying of lung cancer? Or imagine if they made the overweight Ron White (the Blue Collar Comedy guy) host a TV fitness program while swilling bourbon and puffing on a cigar. Now you have an idea how China feels this week, as it prepares to host the growth-mad Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation organization. It’s hard to glamorize something that’s actually killing you.
Instead of a celebration of unfettered development, a my-project-is-bigger-than-your-project bragfest, a sky-is-the-limit orgy of optimism, the attendees are going to be strangling on the effects of unfettered development and holding hands with a would-be Marlboro Man of countries who is, in reality, terminal. Most people die when they can no longer breathe; in China, you’re in danger if you do breathe. The air is that bad.
China has pulled out every stop a totalitarian nation can pull to mitigate the shame. It is closing dirty factories within a hundred miles of Beijing where the conference will take place. It is closing schools, offering residents cheap travel to anywhere else, and banning half the city’s cars from the streets. All in hopes the delegates will be able to see something from their hotel windows and take a brief walk outside without requiring medical attention.
Overstatement? On October 16, air pollution in Beijing exceeded the limit considered safe by the World Health Organization — by a multiple of 16. Readings were similar for ten days in a row. China’s largest scientific institution has described Beijing as barely habitable because of its foul air.
Yet it is not the fate of the Chinese people who have to live in this cesspool that is on the minds of their leaders: The governor of industrial province of Hebei, whose factories are being throttled for the event, said that curbing pollution during the meeting was vital for China’s “national image,” while the country’s vice premier described it as the “priority of priorities.” As for the people who will be allowed to return to their homes and jobs after the delegates go home — let them breathe soot.
The Chinese national government is paying lip service to the near-lethal quality of the country’s air. Early this year Premier Le Keqiang declared war on pollution and announced a new era of environmental stewardship. But as a committee reported this week to the National People’s Congress, no one seems to be paying any attention to the brave new direction. Coal burning is increasing rapidly while renewable energy sources are being ignored.
And at that, air pollution is far from being China’s worst problem. This cancer patient also has congestive heart failure and advanced Alzheimer’s:
- The economy is slowing. China needs a growth rate of 7.2% per year to provide places for its growing population. The rate for the third quarter of this year was 7.3%, the lowest since 2000.
- The housing bubble is imploding. After using borrowed money to overbuild housing and commercial space for two decades, housing prices are plummeting and building is at a standstill.
- Chinese corporate debt is the largest in the world. After years of borrowing like junkies desperate for a fix, they are feeling the contraction of consumer spending — being described as “shocking weakness” and a threat to the world economy — in the same way a horse thief feels a noose.
- China banks are experiencing chest pains. China’s — and the world’s — largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, reports an increase of loan defaults in the third quarter of 10 billion yuan over the second quarter, the largest quarter-to-quarter increase in its history. All of China’s banks report similar loan losses in the third quarter.
China has always been our doppelganger, the evil twin who always gets away with stuff we want to do but don’t dare. In reality, neither of these greedy, destructive twins is getting away with anything. They’re just whiling away the time until Dad gets home.