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Geopolitics

Welcome To Xingtai, The Most Polluted City In China

As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang rolled out the country's new 'war on pollution,' Le Monde paid a visit to the city that has registered the dirtiest air in China.

Forecast: fog mixed with smog
Forecast: fog mixed with smog
Harold Thibault

XINGTAI – The decision, made in January 2013, for 74 Chinese cities to publish their pollution levels in real time only confirmed what many here already feared: Xingtai’s air quality is the worst in China.

And yet, no protesters have taken to the long Iron and Steel street, which goes from the north of the city to the south, and is home to a steel factory and a coal-fired power station. Instead, reactions of residents waver between muffled anger, doubts about the efficiency of the measures taken, and resignation.

“In private, people complain in the evening that they can never see the stars,” says Su Yuhong, a cashier at a grocery located just opposite the steel mill’s blast furnaces.

This 39-year-old woman can’t remember having seen a blue sky even once over the past year. On her smartphone, an app tells her each morning the extent of the damage. The reading is very often above 300 micrograms of fine pollutants per cubic metre of air, a threshold that means the level of pollution is “critical,” even though Chinese standards are more indulgent than in the West.

Su has no doubt that air pollution has an impact on the health of young and old residents alike.

It took the intervention of the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai and publication of their own readings to force China’s government to agree to more transparency on the issue. Now you only need to calculate the average over a whole year, as Greenpeace did in January, to discover that China’s six most polluted cities are all located in the Hebei province (surrounding Beijing).

In Xingtai, the average level was 155 micrograms of fine pollutants per cubic meter, with a one-day peak at 688.

City authorities did not respond to Le Monde’s request for an interview, but Li Gang, head of a local environmental office, recently told the China Securities Journal how Xingtai’s now notorious and unenviable ranking puts the city’s civil servants under pressure, fearing the wrath of Beijing for the poor air conditions.

The small environmental office has to send the pollution readings to local officials three times a day. “If they see that the number of fine pollutants is on the rise, they call us and tell us to do something about it. We must be available and ready to act 24 hours a day,” he explained.

Still, the directors of the region’s heavy industry sites have their own grievances. During meetings with officials, they complain of the recent application of usage costs for sulfate and nitrate filters, which they say reduces their benefits and, consequently, threatens employment. So to save money, industrials turn the filtration systems off at night, when Li Gang and his colleagues are not there to see.

The local authorities have taken several impromptu measures to combat pollution. For example, when the level of particles is too high, employees of the road maintenance department spray water on the tarmac to prevent coal dust from flying. This happened between Feb. 13 and 15, following two other critical episodes in December and January.

Outside activities in school are banned on such days. The city also requires tarpaulin covers for trucks carrying fuel, and is trying to set up an alternate traffic circulation system.

But the inhabitants of Xingtai have long stopped believing in miracles, as the presence of coal in the region encouraged the most polluting industries to settle there from the early years of the People’s Republic of China.

Shi Longhui is a monk, whose small temple in the city is made of red bricks that contrast with the omnipresent grey. He notes that there have been efforts to remove the mountain of scree and ashes from the mines and the factories that were making life impossible for the inhabitants of the southern suburb. For almost six months, dozens of dump trucks gradually moved the pile of toxic waste. It was then used to raise the level of the land for the construction of a new highway. A factory that released acid vapors was forced to close.

Still, Shi Longhui believes the authorities cannot do more than that without risking hurting both the local economy and jobs. “Closing down more factories would have a negative impact on the economy. It’s also important for people to keep their jobs,” he warns.

Just two steps away, 56-year-old storekeeper Li Heping thinks that the air has become much too unhealthy to continue with this kind of business-only reasoning — noting that you only need to walk down the street for your shirt to get dirty.

“You need to consider the economy, of course, but the environment should have become the priority a long time ago,” he says.

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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