China's Pollution 'Solution': Good For Shanghai, Bad For Everybody Else

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Shanghai's new financial district skyline is seen from the opposite side of Huang Pu river.
Shanghai's new financial district skyline is seen from the opposite side of the Huang Pu river.

One major problem that dissuades visitors to China's major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing is the poor air quality. Smog is famously the bane of people who live or visit there, the byproduct of breakneck industrialization.

Recently, minor improvements in pollution in Shanghai have been seen, with blue skies appearing more often than usual. However, pollution in China may not actually be decreasing.

According to Tea Leaf Nation, a Chinese social-media blog, Shanghai is carrying out a plan that has been a decade in the making. Twenty-five of Shanghai's biggest polluters were shut down and moved to inland provinces, far enough that Shanghai would not be affected by pollutants. Factories moved to places such as Anhui, Henan, and Hubei, provinces that could use factories to give life to their otherwise modest local economies.

Almost 100 pollution-producing facilities in Shanghai's outskirts have closed since the cleanup project was initiated. But now the problem is someone else's, and in some villages, the effects are much more dire than smoggy, darkened skies.  

Tea Leaf Nation reported the story of one particular town, Xinglong in Yunnan province, which has now become one of China's "cancer villages," towns where the appearance of factories has been followed by soaring cancer rates.

In Xinglong, local water sources turned red or yellow, crop growth was weak, and livestock began to die. With no alternatives, villagers continued to use what turned out to be water contaminated by chromium-6, a very harmful substance. The company responsible for the chromium dumping remained in business. 

This is not the first time China's government thought to close factories that surrounded big tourist cities. 

China's pollution problem existed long before the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, but it was the added international attention paid to that event that made China's officials self-conscious about the country's ongoing environmental issues. With criticisms appearing in international media -- and athletes opting out of the Olympics due to the health risks posed by the high pollution levels -- Beijing devised a plan that would improve the city's air quality. 

From July 25 to Sept. 30 that year, Beijing's neighboring factory cities were essentially shut down. Cities such as Tianjin, an industrial port 70 miles outside Beijing, closed its factories several days before the Olympics' Aug. 8 opening and did not reopen them until several days after the games.

Both Shanghai and Beijing may be victims of their surroundings: Winds bring pollution from nearby industrial cities with a sprinkling of cement factories, mines, power plants, steel mills, and other heavy polluters into the metropolitan areas. 

But the respective paths they have chosen in the past are not really solutions. And it may not be long until China's increasingly sick population call for a real one. Instead of relying on factory relocations or short-term industrial shutdowns to resolve pollution problems in only the big cities, China's investment in green industries may be the only way the nation can maintain economic growth without sacrificing the health of its citizens. 

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