For this month’s Environmental Outlook: China is said to be literally choking on its own success. The World Health Organization says an Air Quality Index rating above 300 is hazardous. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has a pollution monitor that shows the city regularly exceeds 500. By comparison, the air quality index in Los Angeles is typically in the 20s. Chinese factories operate 24/7 and the prevalence of automobiles has skyrocketed. The worsening pollution impelled the Chinese government to issue an emergency warning about the air in Beijing for the first time. But much more needs to be done. Diane and her guests discuss the air pollution crisis in China.


  • Kenneth Lieberthal Senior fellow and director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings Institution. He's co-author of "Barack Obama: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."
  • Yanzhong Huang Senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • Jennifer Turner Director of the China Environment Forum at The Woodrow Wilson Center.


  • 11:06:57

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing recorded the highest levels of air pollution yet for China's capital. An air quality index of 500 is considered the worst rating. Last week, it approached 900.

  • 11:07:17

    MS. DIANE REHMA typical air quality index for Los Angeles is in the 20s. Joining me in the studio to talk about China's polluted air and what can be done about it is Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution and Jennifer Turner of The Woodrow Wilson Center. Joining us from a studio in New York is Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • 11:07:44

    MS. DIANE REHMAs part of our "Environmental Outlook" series, I hope you will join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.

  • 11:08:05


  • 11:08:05

    MS. JENNIFER TURNERGood morning.

  • 11:08:05

    DR. YANZHONG HUANGGood morning.

  • 11:08:07

    REHMKen Lieberthal, you don't have your iPad app working here to show me, but give us a sense of the scope of the air pollution hitting China.

  • 11:08:20

    LIEBERTHALWell, your introduction noted that a level of 500 or higher is just simply catastrophic. Generally, a level of 50 or below is fine, 100, 50 to 100 has some problems and above 100 just gets increasingly hazardous. I did look at that app right before we sat down, Diane, and the reading for Beijing right now is 325. That is considered hazardous. That puts Beijing the sixth worst in China now...

  • 11:08:55

    REHMSixth worst...

  • 11:08:55

    LIEBERTHAL...among China's cities.

  • 11:08:56


  • 11:08:57

    LIEBERTHALIf you take the number 100 or higher, remember above 100 is bad for your health. There are 100 cities in China today that are registering above 100 as of right now. That is not unusual. So this is a problem that has reached catastrophic levels in the country as a whole, worse in some parts than in others, changes a lot over time with wind and rain and so forth.

  • 11:09:26

    LIEBERTHALBut the bottom line, as I'm sure Dr. Huang will provide details on, is this is bad for your health. It is bad for social stability and it is a huge problem that they must address.

  • 11:09:39

    REHMDr. Huang, when were you last in Beijing and what is happening there to make this such a terrible problem?

  • 11:09:56

    HUANGI was in Beijing in late January and when I arrived, what really surprised me is that the sun hang around the sky, but you don't really see the beauty, you know, it's very close, you know, the PM2.5 level hovering around at like, over 400. My colleagues complain about an uncomfortable throat. You know, the skyscrapers, you know, really high, behind the smog and they feel like they really like it's a ghost city there.

  • 11:10:33

    REHMJennifer Turner, explain how air pollution is actually measured and what's going on here?

  • 11:10:46

    TURNERWhat's going on? Well, as Ken just mentioned, the U.S. Embassy cited that the AQI in Beijing was 325 and I was checking on the Chinese sites earlier this morning and it was a bit lower. It was in the 300s, which is still quite serious.

  • 11:11:01

    TURNERSo what they do is they have six pollutants that they're measuring and they choose the top one to give the score. And again, as Ken noted, between 0 and 500 is how you evaluate it. And now for the PM2.5 has been the top pollutant and when it's at 100, that means that's the maximum level allowable by their air pollution standards in China for PM2.5, which is still pretty dodgy.

  • 11:11:26

    TURNERBut it's even worse because if you had that similar 100 in the U.S., I mean, our PM2.5 standards are much stricter and so -- but no matter how you slice it and you probably can slice it out in Beijing is that, you know, the Chinese government recognizes that they have a major public health emergency. I mean, they've crashed through the ceiling and some of the sources which, I mean, there's the coal, which is their main source of power in China.

  • 11:11:52

    TURNERThere's just the sand and dust from construction, but vehicles are a major source in great part because the fuel that they have in China -- they're the largest buyer of low-quality oil in the world and so -- and their de-sulphurization at the refineries is not. The standards are very low.

  • 11:12:11

    TURNERIn fact, I think there was one oil industry official who said, well, the standards are low. We were just meeting the standards.

  • 11:12:16

    REHMSo why is it getting so much worse?

  • 11:12:23

    TURNERWell, I think in terms of the -- I mean, well, this isn't really a surprise. They've been having these big air pollution problems growing over the last few years and...

  • 11:12:34


  • 11:12:34

    TURNER...right now, I mean, there's a culmination of, you know, the wind patterns. But the fact is they're adding 1,000 some new cars every day on the roads. And coal use doubled between 2000 and 2007 and it's going to double again by the time we hit 2020.

  • 11:12:51

    TURNERI mean, China consumed as much coal as the rest of the world last year and Beijing has become a relatively coal-free zone for what they -- for their own energy within the city. They've switched to natural gas for heating. The region around Beijing is -- I mean, they're still using coal and, I mean, heavy industries are going full-tilt. I mean, they've got a lot of urbanization going on there in China, Diane.

  • 11:13:12

    REHMSo can it be argued that the U.S. is in any way experiencing any of the fallout from China's pollution?

  • 11:13:24

    TURNERWell, I mean, for a number of years, we've heard from the states on the west coast, California, Washington and Oregon, that they have had increasing difficulties meeting the requirements for the Clean Air Act because of pollution coming over from Asia, which in great part is China.

  • 11:13:41

    TURNERBut that said, really it's the Chinese people who are really suffering the brunt of the pollution and, again, it's not just Beijing, as Ken's app showed us.

  • 11:13:48

    REHMSure, sure.

  • 11:13:48

    TURNERIt's all of north China.

  • 11:13:50

    REHMBut Dr. Huang, on a day-to-day basis then, tell us how the Chinese people are experiencing this. We've heard about windows being kept closed. We've heard about people in hotels not wanting to go outdoors. How are people really experiencing this?

  • 11:14:13

    HUANGWell, just to follow up what Ken and Jennifer said, well, basically when the air quality index hit 300, it is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. So in Beijing, there were 15 such days in January alone and so people were advised to stay indoors. But you know that many people have to go to work, cannot do that, to stay at home.

  • 11:14:53

    HUANGAnd so the people talk a lot about the danger of the air pollution in Beijing and actually, I found it very interesting that it seems that the government transparency has increased allowing more people to talk about it. The poor air quality actually made headlines in state-run media.

  • 11:15:18

    HUANGAnd government officials who tend to play down, you know, in the past about heavy smoke and air pollution, they held news conferences. They posted messages on micro-blogs discussing the pollution. And some people even talk about, you know, relocating the capital, Beijing to somewhere else.

  • 11:15:37

    HUANGAnd there's this very eccentric Chinese entrepreneur Chen Guangbiao, he even marketed the so-called canned fresh air in Beijing.

  • 11:15:49

    REHMYeah, now Dr. Huang, you mentioned two packs of cigarettes a day. What about the rise in lung cancer?

  • 11:16:01

    HUANGOh, that's a huge problem now in China and Beijing just released its 2012 cancer registry annual report. Lung cancer actually tops among all types of cancer in terms of the number of cases and deaths in China. Indeed, the number of lung cancer-caused deaths in China has increased by 465 percent in the past three decades.

  • 11:16:27

    REHMKen Lieberthal, to what extent are Chinese leaders, number one, taking this into account, number two, acknowledging it publicly and number three trying to do something about it?

  • 11:16:45

    LIEBERTHALPublic acknowledgement has increased a lot just over the past year. Interestingly, that was largely forced by the U.S. Embassy's measuring air pollution at the embassy compound in Beijing and putting out a Twitter feed live all the time that tells you what that rating is.

  • 11:17:04

    LIEBERTHALAnd what it turned out was that the official statistics put out by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection were systematically, dramatically lower than those of the embassy so that caused an uproar. The Chinese then improved their game.

  • 11:17:21

    LIEBERTHALThey began measuring those very dangerous pollution, the small particulate pollution and they began giving more accurate figures with more measurement. That is now a Cause celebre in China.

  • 11:17:33

    LIEBERTHALIn terms of what they're doing about it, though, frankly it is fundamentally a combination of their approach to economic development, which is to drive GDP growth every day all the time. With most of that GDP growth being in manufacturing and in construction and with officials everywhere benefiting the most when they can build big projects and drive GDP growth by big capital, intensive projects, those tend to be the most polluting things out there.

  • 11:18:07

    LIEBERTHALAnd they're supported by things like cement and aluminum and so forth, all of which are highly polluting. So at the end of the day, this is a model of development just built into the genetic code of the current political system. And they need to change that model of development dramatically as part of the solution to this catastrophic air pollution. So this is not going to happen quickly or easily.

  • 11:18:30

    REHMKen Lieberthal, he's with the Brookings Institution. He's co-author of the book titled "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk more about what's going on in China and take your calls.

  • 11:20:06

    REHMAnd we're talking about pollution in China which is going way beyond what anyone's good health can withstand. Here is our first email which says, "I live in Kentucky and I work in China. I commute every month. I've made over 50 trips to China. I work in the construction market. After every trip I've made in the last three years to Beijing I get a rattling in my chest. I've had more sinus infections there than anywhere in my life. The air and smell are very distinct." Dr. Huang, what do you make of that?

  • 11:21:03

    HUANGWell, that's not atypical. In fact, foreigners visiting China often show symptoms of coughing or the nickname Beijing cough. They also complain about, you know, throat feeling uncomfortable. In fact, according to a recent research, air pollution can raise the risk of cardio respiratory death by 2 to 3 percent for every increase of ten micrograms per cubic meter of pollutants.

  • 11:21:31

    HUANGAnd Chinese leading public health experts say that the increase of the same micrograms of per cubic meter of PM 2.5 actually is associated with a 20 percent increase in lung cancer incidents rate and an increase of about 10 percent of premature birth. So the health impact of the air pollution in China is indeed huge, I would say.

  • 11:21:59


  • 11:22:00

    LIEBERTHALDiane, you might want to tell your listeners that you can buy -- easily purchase masks called N95 as an N95 standard, which totally protects you form this particulate pollution.

  • 11:22:15

    REHMTotally can?

  • 11:22:16

    LIEBERTHALTotally. These are 100 percent protection if they are fitted properly and you wear them all the time.

  • 11:22:23

    REHMDoes that mean wearing them indoors as well as out?

  • 11:22:26

    LIEBERTHALYou are -- indoors is not as big a danger as out, but doctors will tell you, yeah, it can...

  • 11:22:34

    REHMAnd how much do they cost?

  • 11:22:36

    LIEBERTHALThey vary a lot. I just got one which is one of the highest quality ones, $72 it was.

  • 11:22:41

    REHMSeventy-two dollars. So that means...

  • 11:22:43

    LIEBERTHALAnd that would be long lasting.

  • 11:22:44 that means that people in the American embassy in Beijing and other areas of China ought to be wearing these masks, Jennifer?

  • 11:22:56

    TURNERWell, also should not that at the international school in Beijing and I think some of the wealthier schools that they've actually installed this -- a kind of tent cover around the outdoor playgrounds...

  • 11:23:05

    REHMA dome of some sort.

  • 11:23:06

    TURNER...a dome. And that most homes and definitely all hotels, they have air filters in the room.

  • 11:23:14

    REHMI see. Here's another email, this from Roberto in Phoenix, listening on our member station KJAZZ. "If we are concerned about the air quality that we share with China then Americans are going to have to give up their addiction to cheaply made made-in-China good available at local Walmarts and Target. The Chinese do the hard and very dirty work of making this stuff we want to buy." Ken.

  • 11:23:54

    LIEBERTHALWell, that's true. There have been suggestions that we ought to pressure the Chinese to have higher standards in that kind of thing. It probably means that production of those good will move to other countries that may have governments less able to police standards of production. So at the end of the day, at least this limited way, yeah, the fault is with us. As long as we want to buy very cheap goods, those goods are likely to have impacts on the environment as they're produced.

  • 11:24:25

    LIEBERTHALAnd the fact that they're produced in China doesn't mean that impact is any larger than if they were produced somewhere else.

  • 11:24:31

    REHMBut if you have a Chinese government that as recently as December 31 has said that Beijing's air has improved for 14 straight years, either it was unlivable before or I don't know how they're measuring, Jennifer.

  • 11:24:56

    TURNERWell, your jaws drop when you hear those kinds of stats. But looking at some of the action, though, that they're taking, I mean, March 1, they issued some really strict emission standards for the heavy polluting industries, some of them that Ken named before. The coal-fired power plants are one of them. And the government -- they're not going to let electricity rates increase initially. They really want the coal and the steel and these other sectors to really bear the costs so they have the incentives to become more efficient. And in terms of energy, maybe increase renewables.

  • 11:25:26

    TURNERBut that said they've already been ramping up renewables faster than any other country in the world. And so, I mean, they're in a tough position but at the same time the pressure's great. I mean, you know, the people are there. You know, they're Twittering. There are citizen science people going out with their own rented air quality monitors and recording them online. I mean -- and the government's -- they really want to act quickly.

  • 11:25:46

    REHMBut at the same time 60 Minutes focused this past weekend on a woman who, with her husband, is doing more of the building and construction all over China at just an extraordinarily rapid pace. What does all that construction itself mean for pollution, Ken?

  • 11:26:14

    LIEBERTHALIt means a lot more pollution.

  • 11:26:15


  • 11:26:16

    LIEBERTHALChina -- keep in mind there are -- this woman, Zhang Xin and her husband generally do very high-end things, you know, very modern malls and high-end residences and that kind of thing. But at the end of the day the rate of urbanization in China, the number of people who move from rural life to urban life every month is over a million.

  • 11:26:36

    REHMBut what that piece showed was that people outside are buying those apartments, that they're empty, that the construction has gone up but nobody is moving into them, Jennifer.

  • 11:26:56

    TURNERWell, those are the ghost cities that we're seeing springing up. And it's a horrendous waste. I mean, China -- but there are cities, you know, that are being built and people are moving into them. It's a huge strategy of the government to urbanize another 350 million in the next 10 to 15 years. And, you know, which means a lot of energy, a lot of costs but it's also meant to be for stability. But with that stability bringing with it all this pollution, you know, again the pressure's coming down -- I mean, for real maybe political changes in China in terms of, you know, let's say an environmental governance.

  • 11:27:27

    TURNEROfficials used to get graded, I mean, since 2006 on whether or not they install the infrastructure. Waste water treatment plants is my favorite example. You get your credit, you get promoted but you didn't turn it on. And now with this PM 2.5 pressure the officials are now -- it looks like -- and it'll be interesting to see what happens in the next, you know, months -- they will be evaluated on an actual environmental performance, which seems common sense but that's a new and big improvement and the people are watching.

  • 11:27:57

    REHMAll right. I want to open the phones, take the first call from Indianapolis. Good morning, Ray. You're one the air.

  • 11:28:07

    RAYThank you. I had a question about the linearity of the scale. Presumably a score of 200 is twice as bad as 100 and 400 would be twice as bad as 200. But is it just twice as bad? Would 400 be much more than twice as bad as 200, especially on health?

  • 11:28:25


  • 11:28:28

    TURNEROh, you're starting to get me into that deep water of not -- I mean, I don't think it's just linear but, I mean, you know, it's...

  • 11:28:37

    REHMIt's bad, whatever it is...

  • 11:28:38

    TURNER...whatever it is it's just getting bad.

  • 11:28:40

    REHM...whatever the number is. Let's go to David in University Park, Md. Hi there.

  • 11:28:48

    DAVIDHi, Diane. Love your show.

  • 11:28:49

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:28:51

    DAVIDI have a practical question. My wife and I are going on vacation in a couple of weeks to Beijing and Shanghai for nine days. What should we do to prepare? These N95 masks, that sounds good. Anything else?

  • 11:29:07


  • 11:29:09

    LIEBERTHALDepending upon how bad the pollution is on any given day, this can vary enormously and you can see it. If the pollution is bad generally plan your day in doors as much as possible. If it's a clear day...

  • 11:29:19

    REHMBut that sort of defeats the point, doesn't it?

  • 11:29:22

    DAVIDExactly. We want to see the Great Wall, you know.

  • 11:29:24

    LIEBERTHALWell, frankly you can go out in Beijing on a heavily polluted day and you aren't going to see much anyway.

  • 11:29:30


  • 11:29:30

    LIEBERTHALIt's literally the case that you can be three blocks away from a skyscraper and not know there's a skyscraper there on a heavily polluted day. So this is visible. It's not just invisible. I would wear an appropriate mask and I wouldn't do outdoor exercise. If you go outdoors -- Beijing used to be my favorite city in the world to run in, flat, plenty of bike lanes, etcetera. I haven't run there in 20 years because it is like rapidly chain smoking. So you have to just be sensible about that. Your hotel undoubtedly will have air filters, you know, for the rooms and that kind of thing that you won't see but will produce reasonable quality air indoors.

  • 11:30:11

    REHMDavid, good luck to you. Jennifer.

  • 11:30:14

    TURNERWell, I was just maybe -- I don't know if the tickets are already booked but really, look at the app on the U.S. Embassy of where the weather is better. And really southern China, some parts of it, you know, I feel like for the tourist board of, like, (unintelligible). But maybe further south would be better and safer.

  • 11:30:28

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Ann Arbor, Mich. Bruce, you're on the air.

  • 11:30:34

    BRUCEHi, thank you. I guess you answered some of the questions. We are going to China too and I have asthma and my daughter has asthma. You answered some of the questions. The other question I have, where can you go and find out these pollution ratings on the web? And we don't have the app for it.

  • 11:30:55

    LIEBERTHALThere are now websites in China that -- to publicize the Environmental Protection Agency's pollution readings in major cities around the country. In Beijing now it tells you readings for each locality in Beijing and they can vary a fair amount across the city.

  • 11:31:13


  • 11:31:13

    LIEBERTHALAsthma -- let me just comment -- is by now epidemic in China, especially among Chinese children. So -- and frankly I personally developed exercise-induced asthmas by running in Beijing. And there's an infection that I got from that. So if you're asthmatic I would be sure to bring your inhaler or whatever -- you know, whatever you use and have a little extra because this is an environment that really can irritate your asthma.

  • 11:31:41

    REHMBruce, considering the fact that both you and your daughter have asthma, why are you going?

  • 11:31:51

    BRUCEWell, I just -- ignorance is part of it. We didn't know it's this bad and I guess we don't stay in Beijing too long. We are going to the Great Wall of China and other sightseeing.

  • 11:32:04

    REHMWell, and that's the question. How is he going to see the Great Wall of China?

  • 11:32:12

    LIEBERTHALWell, you know, the Great Wall is out to the west of Beijing. It happens to be a fairly windy area, so very often you can see it fairly clearly when Beijing itself may be much more socked in. It just varies by the day, frankly.

  • 11:32:26

    REHMRight. Bruce, good luck to you.

  • 11:32:29

    BRUCEThank you. Bye.

  • 11:32:29

    REHMAnd thanks for calling. Let's go now to Bartlett, N.H. Beth, you're on the air.

  • 11:32:38

    BETHYes. I just want to say, I am really traumatized as a human being to think that I belong to a civilization at this time called the industrial age that is this giant machine that only focuses on economics at the risk of perhaps in a few hundred years life on earth, you know, might not be able to be sustained. And we're focusing on air pollution in China. We could be focusing on chemical industrial agriculture in the United States. But everything we seem to be doing as a species, you know, philosophically is causing harm.

  • 11:33:23

    BETHAnd I don't know how to be -- how to get untrapped from this seemingly inhumane and polluting -- I mean, with the EPA, we have the Environmental Protection Agency, but already our environment is in peril.

  • 11:33:38

    REHMBeth, I think there are lots of people who share your concern. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What would you say to Beth, Jennifer?

  • 11:33:52

    TURNERWell, I think -- I mean, looking here out to our blue sky in D.C., I’m feeling okay in general...

  • 11:33:57

    REHM...for now.

  • 11:33:58

    TURNER...for now. But, you know, looking in China, though, you know, and reflecting how it used to be in the U.S. -- I mean, our rivers caught on fire, we had the -- Pittsburgh used to look like Beijing today. And that in every country environmental crises is what sparks reform and enforcement of laws.

  • 11:34:14

    REHMSo you're optimistic.

  • 11:34:16

    TURNERI am perhaps strange optimistic but it's because I work with a lot of the government NGO businesses and researchers in China who have been really at the forefront of trying to push for change. And it is tough but I think that there is an opening now. I mean, U.S. environmental NGOs have been active in China for a long time. And there is a growing Chinese environmental NGO movement and they're starting to step up and move into the political space more.

  • 11:34:40

    REHMDr. Huang, how serious do you see that environmental work in China?

  • 11:34:48

    HUANGWell, it is a very serious problem there, but -- now I'm like Jennifer. I'm a cautious optimistic because see, if you look at London like 50 years ago, they had the similar problem. They got it fixed. There was a problem in Japan in 1950s, 1960s but thanks to a citizens movement there they began to clean up. The efforts paid off. You know, same thing happened actually in Mexico City.

  • 11:35:21

    HUANGI do believe that the same thing could happen in China. But don't expect a fundamental change very soon because the economic growth would continue increasing the demand for energy use and boosting the rapid growth of the transportation sector, which actually contributes to the high PM 2.5 level in China, especially when you have seen the regime whose legitimacy still hinges upon delivering robust economic growth. The government at various levels would continue to pursue this single-minded growth at the expense of the environment.

  • 11:36:01

    HUANGIn fact, I was reading the government work report delivered by the outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. He warned -- that was yesterday -- that economic development is increasingly in conflict with resource conservation and environmental protection. So I do think that the government leaders have realized there's a problem, it needs to be fixed. The thing is that they need to figure out a way how to shift its legitimacy base to a new one and to reconfigure that the state's society relationship to allow the people to have a louder say in the policy process.

  • 11:36:44


  • 11:36:45

    LIEBERTHALI agree with everything that's just been said. I'm still pessimistic. What I'm pessimistic about is greenhouse gas emissions. The really big threat to our future wellbeing is not particulate pollution in the air, as everyone's indicated. You can clean that up overtime and there's a lot of experience in that. The greenhouse gas emission side, we're headed for deep, deep trouble. And China counts for nearly 50 percent of the global increase in greenhouse gas emissions every year. And something like that figure is going to remain the case for the next 15 to 20 years by optimistic projections. So I think that that's really where the problem is, and unfortunately am not very optimistic about solving it.

  • 11:37:27

    REHMKen Lieberthal. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your questions and comments.

  • 11:40:03

    REHMWelcome back. China's air pollution is our focus during this segment of our monthly environmental outlook. And here's a tweet which is right on. It says, "How does China's air pollution compare to London during the Industrial Revolution?" Good question, Jennifer.

  • 11:40:29

    TURNERI haven't looked at the air quality index for what was happening, but from the sounds of it, you know, when we hear the stories, it's very comparable. I mean you can't see anywhere, but in that one, I mean, people were literally falling down on the streets, but perhaps they didn't have the masks and air filters that we have today. So, yeah, it's equally severe. And like Pittsburgh, too, back in the day of the heavy steel industry where at 12:00 noon it looked like night.

  • 11:40:53

    REHMAnd that's why you're optimistic?

  • 11:40:56

    TURNERWell, we'll say cautiously optimistic.

  • 11:40:59


  • 11:40:59

    TURNERBut just that we've seen around the world that when you have a crisis, I mean, there needs to be a response. And what's going to be fascinating to see is if that with the pressure for accountability--and even industries are being told that they have to buy compulsory insurance so that they will have to pay for damage. So the pressure's coming on the industries. And keep in mind, Diane, that most of the industries are state owned. You know, local governments own a lot of these industries. And they're the ones regulating. Hum? It is a significant reform in trying to really pressure them to improve.

  • 11:41:32

    REHMHere's another tweet for you, Ken. "With government-propped business and high corruption levels, won't Chinese officials just lie about the actual air quality and progress on regulations?"

  • 11:41:50

    LIEBERTHALThe short answer is yes. Especially not the environmental officials, most of them are really committed to, you know, good outcomes here, but local governors, mayors, you know, heads of small towns and all that kind of thing, they're all focused on GDP growth. And they are perfectly happy very often to twist and suppress statistics that don't support all-out efforts to continue to increase GDP growth. So I think that's a major problem.

  • 11:42:23

    REHMSo therefore you had differences between what the U.S. embassy was reporting and what the Chinese government was reporting.

  • 11:42:33

    TURNERBut over the past decade we've been seeing a lot more citizen protests in China around pollution. Initially, it was in rural areas, land grabs, water pollution issues were a big driver of it, but we have been starting to see over the last few years that citizens in urban areas, well, they do come out to the streets. They don't want to come out now because the air is so bad, but they are coming out, let's say, in the social media world.

  • 11:42:56

    TURNERPeople are coming together. There's petitions. Citizens are getting involved in even the evaluation of Beijing's air quality management plan. The NGO Friends of Nature in China, China's first environmental group, they're bringing together lawyers, citizens and scientists to make comments on this plan. And so, you know, people are inserting themselves and, you know, they've been told, starting back in the preparation to the Olympics, that they have a right to a clean environment. And the people are starting to demand it.

  • 11:43:22

    TURNERAnd that's where, you know, you are going to see pressure coming to bear on some of these local governments.

  • 11:43:26

    REHMAll right. To Biff, in Kitty Hawk, N.C. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:43:32

    BIFFGood morning. Thank you, Diane.

  • 11:43:34


  • 11:43:35

    BIFFI really think that we're a little late into it, but it's fairly easy to avoid. And this will be a repetitive situation as the markets move to manufacturing in Africa or other places. But if we simply take our current, high-manufacturing standards and extend those to the purchase of manufactured goods, this would not happen.

  • 11:43:55

    REHMDr. Huang?

  • 11:43:58

    HUANGWell, yes. China's integration into the global economy actually makes China destination of choice for the worst, probably, most environmentally damaging industries, including petrochemical plants, semiconductor factories, strip mining, you know, this industry is just basically taking advantage of China's weak laws and enforcement capacity to relocate their most-polluting enterprises to China. So if we indeed tighten the standards, you know, on those industries or in the meantime China increased the enforcement capacity, I do think that will actually provide one solution to the problem.

  • 11:44:47

    REHMHere's an email from Jan, who now lives in Florida. She says, "I'm 65. I grew up in Pittsburgh. My parents were born and spent their lives there, living next to a mill. My mother talked about as a child washing the windows and curtains weekly because of the dirt and regularly swimming in the rivers with hospital and human waste. And look at Pittsburgh now."

  • 11:45:28

    LIEBERTHALWell, again, the good news is the technology exists to clean up air pollution. And you can clean up a lot of other kinds of pollution if you have the right standards. The technology is there and we see examples in Pittsburgh and London and Tokyo also. Many other parts of the world have done this. The issue is whether you have the will to do it, whether your priorities are there and whether you can cope with things like corruption that tend to make it more difficult to enforce standards.

  • 11:46:01

    REHMAnd here's another one from an emailer saying, "I traveled with my daughter to China last June. Our first stop was Beijing. The weather was divine, blue skies, breezy air. We had the trip of our lives. When did this most recent heavy pollution set in?" Dr. Huang?

  • 11:46:29

    HUANGWell, there's certain days indeed it's very gorgeous, but even that, the PM 2.5 level could still be considered…

  • 11:46:42

    REHMOh, I see.

  • 11:46:44

    HUANG…at the unhealthy level, so the sky might be deceiving.

  • 11:46:51

    LIEBERTHALNow, Diane, yesterday morning Beijing's reading was 25. Today it's 325.

  • 11:46:58


  • 11:46:58

    LIEBERTHALIf the wind picks up, if there's a heavy rain…

  • 11:47:00

    REHMI see, I see.

  • 11:47:02

    LIEBERTHAL…this can change and then it can shoot right back up. So this is not every day, all the time.

  • 11:47:07

    REHMA constant, yeah.

  • 11:47:09

    LIEBERTHALBut your caller was lucky.

  • 11:47:12

    REHMAll right. To Baton Rouge, La. Good morning, Elliott.

  • 11:47:17

    ELLIOTTGood morning.

  • 11:47:18


  • 11:47:19

    ELLIOTTMy question is a bit more open-ended. And so I guess it's about the relationship of infrastructure to how the cities are being built. So initially cities, from a very early period they metamorphosize, they grow, people interact with them, but now there's a state of just the city's thought of and it is built. And so what do you think the relationship is now between the inhabitants of the city and how that's shared between the negotiation of identity and purpose?

  • 11:47:48

    REHMI'm not sure I get that. Dr. Huang, do you understand that?

  • 11:47:52

    HUANGI didn't hear very clearly what the caller said.

  • 11:47:55

    REHMOkay. I’m not sure I get your question, Elliott.

  • 11:47:58

    ELLIOTTWell, let me rephrase. If the cities now in China are just being built instantaneously--so they think of them and then the architects conceive of them and they build them.

  • 11:48:10

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:48:11

    ELLIOTTWhat do you think the relationship is now between people and the city? Because it's not like New York or L.A. or Philadelphia, where they grow. They're organic.

  • 11:48:19

    REHMOkay. Jennifer?

  • 11:48:20

    TURNERWell, yeah, the pressure to populate these cities is great. And so, one, I personally think it's kind of hideous. They have these huge city blocks where it's just a mile by mile. And in China in some cities they're creating very unlivable cities. And I do applaud your caller talking about how the lack of a sense of community in these areas. That said, there are a lot of international organizations that are--for example in Guangdong they've worked in building bus rapid transit and around this transit creating much more livable space.

  • 11:48:53

    TURNERAnd there is, particularly Guangdong, there's a lot cities that are rethinking how they're going to develop because, you know, I mean, the city planners, they live in the city, too. And so it's an encouraging trend, but at the same time, the speed of development is so great and regulation is so poor that you sometimes get some…

  • 11:49:10

    REHMI see.

  • 11:49:11

    TURNER…pretty sad neighborhoods.

  • 11:49:11

    REHMAll right. To Dallas, Texas. Hi, Tom.

  • 11:49:16

    TOMOh, hi. Could the guest who recommended magic masks give a little more details about the name brand or other specs of the mask so people like myself who travel to China can buy the right ones?

  • 11:49:31


  • 11:49:32

    TURNERSure, what I mentioned was "N," as in "Navy," 95. One of the higher quality N95 masks is produced by a company called Respro, which, let me say, I have no interest in whatsoever, but…

  • 11:49:47

    REHMThat's good.

  • 11:49:47

    LIEBERTHAL…that happens to be the kind that I bought and it's a very high quality. But you can get onto the web, put in N95 face mask and you will get a full array of options and reports about their reliability.

  • 11:50:01

    REHMAnd I just want to be clear once again, even if the skies are blue, Ken, and you go to Beijing, you're wearing that mask indoors and out?

  • 11:50:15

    LIEBERTHALNo. Actually, I don't. I don't wear it indoors.

  • 11:50:18

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:50:19

    LIEBERTHALAgain, most hotels have filtration systems, most government offices do and so forth.

  • 11:50:23

    REHMBut if you walk out the door…

  • 11:50:25

    LIEBERTHALIf I'm outdoors, if it is a visibly smoggy day I wear a mask. If it's not I don't. Now, let me say it's because I spend some time in Beijing, but most of the time I live in the United States, in Washington, which is not a very polluted city. So it's just a matter of what kind of risk you're willing to expose yourself to or how much you like wearing a mask. I don't.

  • 11:50:52

    REHMTo Greenville, N.C. Hi, Daniel.

  • 11:50:58

    DANIELVery interesting show today. My question for your guest is--I teach air pollution at the university level and I taught on a program called Semester at Sea. And on our voyage around the world my students and myself, we went to both India and China. And in my environmental health class, we observed the air pollution problems in both countries. My question is the two most populace countries in the world--and they both seem to have equally as much air pollution problem--would your guests comment on that? It's not only China, it's other countries in the world that have these (word?) extreme problem.

  • 11:51:46


  • 11:51:47

    TURNERWell, I mean, it's the push. I mean, India is developing quite rapidly, as well. I mean, in terms of coal production it's only about 20 percent of what China is, but it's set to increase very rapidly over the next decade. And their CO2 emissions could come to rival those of China, but, you know, a lot of these air pollution problems do stem from coal and coal is readily available. So I mean that's what countries tend to grasp towards. And it is a challenge. I mean, what's interesting, though, in China is that years ago when I first started going there everyone said, you know, we pollute first, clean up later.

  • 11:52:24

    TURNERAnd now they don't say that as much, but, you know, they're grappling with it on how to address it.

  • 11:52:30

    REHMBut so for the caller's direct question, would you say that China's worse than India right now?

  • 11:52:40

    TURNERRight now China's definitely worse, yeah.

  • 11:52:44

    REHMOkay. Hope that answers it, Daniel.

  • 11:52:46

    DANIELThank you.

  • 11:52:47

    REHMAll right. To a caller here in Washington, D.C. Shawn, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:54

    SHAWNGood morning, Diane. Thanks so much for taking my call.

  • 11:52:56


  • 11:52:57

    SHAWNThis has been a really fascinating conversation, but I'm surprised that none of the guests have touched on what is a huge driver of air pollution and global emissions and that's the burning of solid fuels for residential cooking. You know, Hillary Clinton's raised a lot of awareness about this, but some estimate that almost half the world's population burns wood and coal for cooking and in addition to the health impacts you can imagine of the smoke that results, some of the emissions, like methane and black carbon and soot make it into the ambient air and pollute the atmosphere.

  • 11:53:29

    SHAWNEspecially in China, where hundreds of millions of people do cook this way. I’m wondering if any of the panelists can comment on the issue in China or globally and, you know, what might be done about it.

  • 11:53:38

    REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Dr. Huang?

  • 11:53:46

    HUANGYes, actually coal burning and cooking is an important contributor to PM 2.5 in China. According to recent research by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, coal burning and cooking actually contribute to 20 percent of the PM 2.5 in China. That is actually less than the 25 percent of the contribution made by the motor vehicle emissions. The coal burning and cooking is a major source we know of sulphur dioxide, you know, nitrogen oxide. But if you compare China actually with India, the South Asia, actually, household air pollution from solid fuel (word?) is not that serious a problem. Although, it is, you know, a big problem in the rural area.

  • 11:54:43

    REHMAll right. To Pensacola, Fla. Hi, Allen.

  • 11:54:47

    ALLENHey, Diane. Thank you for taking my call. I really love your show.

  • 11:54:50

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:54:51

    ALLENA quick question for your guests. We're focusing today on Beijing, maybe a little on India, but this air that they're breathing circulates the globe all the time. It's almost like well, if you don't go to India or you don't go to China, then you'll be okay, but we all share this air. And just ask the guests, you know, how this air circulates and should we be concerned about that in other places because of what's going on?

  • 11:55:21

    LIEBERTHALSure, particulate matter does circulate in the wind, but particulate matter, unlike say greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, actually comes out of the air and falls to the ground. A lot depends upon where it's rained and that kind of thing. So it's not the case that Chinese emissions harm us as much as they harm Chinese, as Jennifer noted earlier, while greenhouse gas emissions in China do harm us as much as they harm the Chinese because they stay in the air for many decades and have a generalized global effect, as do our greenhouse gas emissions.

  • 11:55:51

    LIEBERTHALSo this is a problem, but where particulate matter gets thrown into the air does make a difference in terms of who suffers most from it.

  • 11:55:59


  • 11:55:59

    TURNERI want to note that NOAH had done some studies out in Oregon that because of coal emissions from Asia, most of it coming from China, finding actually greater amounts of mercury in rivers and animal species out there because Chinese coal has a lot of naturally occurring mercury. And there's not much data in China on this mercury. So, you know, the pollution does make it here, but I’m glad Ken mentioned about the PM 2.5.

  • 11:56:24

    REHMYeah, Ken, final question, you talked about government officials, you know, the mayors, the leaders, what about the business leaders themselves, to what extent are they pushing for change?

  • 11:56:42

    LIEBERTHALYou know, it's interesting. In the last few years in China a number of business leaders have begun to become very involved in clean growth, green growth. There's an organization of major business leaders that focuses on this, has a number of meetings, does studies and so forth. So that's begun to catch on. It isn't at a level yet that it's going to change what we've been talking about, but it's a very hopeful sign in development.

  • 11:57:07

    REHMI should say. Well, it's good to end on an up-note from Ken Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution, co-author of "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." Jennifer Turner, she's at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Yanzhong Huang, he's senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of "Governing Health in Contemporary China." Thank you all so much.

  • 11:57:44

    LIEBERTHALThank you.

  • 11:57:44

    TURNERThank you so much.

  • 11:57:45

    HUANGThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:45

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I’m Diane Rehm.

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