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Bureaucracy can be as toxic 
as the air that we breathe

By Shi Feng

On January 29, the government of China issued a warning to residents in Beijing that harmful particulates in the air had reached a dangerous level and advised people to remain indoors.

Pollution in cities across the country has been making headlines for weeks—as have studies of the deterioration of air quality because of industrial pollution, which has pushed the number of severe warning days in the Chinese capital up between 30 and 50 per cent.

In a recent study, Guangdong-based meteorologist, Wu Dui, warned of an outbreak of lung cancer over the next decade and added that smog has now replaced smoking as the major cause of the disease.

The killer in China’s air is the PM 2.5 particulate, which contains sulphur compounds, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals—all of which pose severe health risks.
Local media reported that an inaugural Yearbook of Oncology in China, published in early January this year, has found that one in every 312 people in eastern Zhejiang province suffers from cancer.

In an online survey conducted by Zhejiang-based Qingnian Shibao (Youth Daily), more than 90 per cent of about 40,000 respondents said they believe deterioration in the quality of the environment has led to higher rates of cancer in the province.

I am a native of Zhejiang’s Wenzhou city, whose mountains and rivers once provided a beautiful backdrop for its residents.

But after industrialisation opened the city up in the 1980s, the rivers that fed generations of my ancestors turned yellow and foul with pollution.

Today, environmental degradation in the province has worsened. The industrial zone sits adjacent to residential areas and sewage and polluted air discharging from the factories is highly visible, as is the exhaust from the growing number of private cars, smoke from burning garbage and dust from construction sites.

This is the epitome of hubris in a developing country.

The achievements of the past 30 years of reform in the country are killing the proverbial goose and its golden eggs.

Those who first became prosperous in industry grabbed 80 per cent of the wealth and immigrated to other countries, leaving the poor with a badly damaged environment that poses grave health risks.

The only positive development is that public awareness of the need to protect the environment has increased.

Massive protests took place last year in various provinces against the establishment of factories that emit colorless toxic para-Xylene (a benzene-based hydrocarbon). The specific target was a paper factory that was discharging waste into the ocean and an LCD television factory that is emitting polluted air, water and toxic residues.

Environmental departments in the government have in the past turned a blind eye to pollution and done little beyond issuing fines or accepting bribes from offenders.

These departments, like most government bureaucracies, are hotbeds of corruption—making this injustice its own form of toxic haze.

We can only breathe in the pollutants, both literal and figurative, and watch, as protesters get sent to labour camps or branded mentally unstable.

The country has high expectations of its newly appointed leaders to provide a greater sense of security. But the bureaucratic structures themselves are a part of the problem.

And if nothing is done to reform them, they will remain a cancer eating away at the foundations of the nation and as deadly as the gritty air that shrouds the country. (UCAN)