‘APEC blue’ displays challenges of change

By Liu Zhun Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-10 17:33:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

APEC, an international high-level forum which is widely considered to have nothing to do with ordinary people, has attracted the attention of those living in Beijing, the host city.

Shutting down factories, taking vehicles off the road, and granting a holiday for the employees of government departments and institutions, Beijing, and the surrounding regions, have strived to help the event go well. These measures, to put it simply, aim to guarantee blue skies for the event.

So far, these efforts have paid off, more or less. The whole city, which has been suffering from heavy smog in recent years, has been bathed in sunshine and fresh air for a few days.

Before the APEC meeting, the Beijing International Marathon, however, didn't get the blue sky treatment and turned out to be a "smogthon."

Many Chinese people, especially Beijingers, believe this shows that it's not insurmountable obstacles, but a lack of determination that keeps the capital's air filthy.

Ironic comments soon multiplied. APEC was said to stand for "Air Pollution Eventually Controlled." A phrase has been devised to refer to the sky, "APEC blue." The term is also used to refer to a fleeting pleasure, whose opposite is "Beijing smog." All these jokes reflect people's disbelief in the sustainability of clean air.

The efforts to make sure Beijing has blue skies and clean air during the APEC meeting follow the logic of cleaning your living room before inviting friends for dinner. There is no benefit to allowing the capital city to be shrouded by smog when the meeting starts, given that many overseas media outlets are fond of seizing such opportunities to highlight China's problems.

Crisp air comes at the price of the convenience. Some are unhappy to see express deliveries halted, the central heating for buildings turned off, and public transport busier due to tighter traffic controls. But the temporary blue skies are the result of a big compromise that economic growth has made with the environment for a week.

There is so far no estimate of economic losses due to the APEC meeting, but it could be huge, considering the thousands of factories, construction sites and public utility organs that have been closed. This is the price that the Chinese people have to pay for a couple of days of APEC blue. The question is whether the public are ready to make such enormous sacrifices for a high-quality environment in the long term.

These measures employed during the meeting are too tough to last for long, but they show the people that blue skies and crisp air can come back if a whole package of changes are enacted.

But changes, like steering a cruise ship, are never quick or easy for a large economy and society as China.

Each step of China's economic transformation and social improvement has taken great strength. The air pollution is the result of an unsustainable model of economic growth, and it cannot be cleaned up without a great deal of time and effort.

The complaints against the government during the meeting, where some unrelated and old grudges have arisen, make little contribution to the government's work on the smog issue. The government needs criticism, but it also requires constructive and objective ideas.

As for the authorities, they have to rearrange their governing priorities at their own discretion as there are short-term contingencies and long-term developmental goals.

But they should realize that the times have changed, and every decision they make might cause a stir in public discourse. This requires a more effective model of interaction and response, which can produce more mutual understanding and respect.

The author is a Global Times reporter. liuzhun@globaltimes.com.cn

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