Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
During the few days when I visited Seoul, Beijing was hit by the most severe smog this winter. One late afternoon, I climbed onto the top of the television tower on Namsan Mountain, which oversees the whole city. The setting sun in the distance had dimmed its glare, and a thin layer of fog was floating over the city.
After I came down from the mountain, a friend who works in South Korea called a taxi to take me to a shopping mall. My friend, who can speak Korean, soon began to chat with the South Korean driver after we got into the taxi. The driver first asked which part of China we came from. After he heard that we were from Beijing, he said, "Then I bet you came here to escape the smog."
Apparently, the smog in Beijing has become an issue in South Korea. According to my friend, although investigations by the South Korean government showed that about 30 to 50 percent of the dust found in the smog of South Korea comes from overseas, many South Koreans still tend to believe that the poor air in their country comes from Beijing.
A phrase that South Koreans often use to describe the poor air quality is yellow dust. They naturally associate yellow dust with the sand storms or smog in China and Mongolia. The South Korean media now provide more and more timely and frequent coverage of the smog in China.
There is no doubt that the frequent outbreaks of smog have tainted China's image. However, more importantly, smog is used to represent the China-style development path, and thus it becomes an embodiment of competitiveness to eliminate or reduce smog. Voices are also springing up in the South Korean media to call on people to take warning from the Chinese development pattern and make the sky of South Korea more blue.
Generally speaking, South Korea is now ahead of China in environmental protection. This is the result of a long process of environment restoration after the end of industrialization in South Korea, which started in the 1960s.
The Cheonggyecheon of Seoul is a typical example. The stream was restored after tearing down a viaduct bridge which was then considered as a symbol of modern metropolises. Now, the Cheonggyecheon has become a green scenic spot that South Koreans are proud of.
A review article in the US magazine Forbes once made an analogy between China's current environmental protection challenge and that of the US in the 1970s. The implication of the "development stage" is obvious in the article.
Nowadays, people in the US and South Korea can enjoy fresh air and clean water, which is the result of carrying out three to four decades of environmental protection after providing people with adequate food. Even so, there are still undesirable aspects in these countries.
Immediately after China has edged itself into the group of "middle income countries," while still lagging far behind the "developed" countries, it now has to face the post-industrialization conundrum.
Many Chinese have barely enjoyed the benefits of industrialization and urbanization, before they have to make a choice between a blue sky and a job. Just as our modernization is in a condensed form, our progress of environmental protection must be condensed as well.
For today's Americans, clean air and water are as important as the ceiling above their heads, said the article in Forbes. The comment can also be used to describe how much importance the Chinese people now attach to environmental protection.
The challenge of the Chinese economic transformation lies in that neither the domestic nor the international circumstances allow China to make adjustments in a leisurely manner as the developed countries did.
China has to realize its goal of environmental protection in the shortest time possible. In the future, the competitiveness and impact of the China model also need to be embodied to a greater extent by a blue sky. The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina