What will it take to fix China’s pollution problem?


FORTUNE — I visited China for the first time in nearly 20 years this past summer. Everyone talks about how much has changed, and it’s true. There were mule-drawn carriages in the streets of central Beijing the last time I was there. Today, not so much.

What hasn’t changed is the air pollution. In fact, it has gotten worse.

How much worse? Fortune Magazine Editor Andy Serwer devoted his front-of-the-book essay to the Chinese air-pollution problem in the new issue of the magazine. His article, “A China crisis that’s here,” goes so far as to argue that the dirty air over China is a near-term political crisis for the country’s new president Xi Jinping. (He includes some controversial digs at a Chinese government propaganda machine that’s taking after U.S. icons like Apple and Starbucks in order to distract its own people.)

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I agree that Xi faces a crisis over this. Chinese people are willing to put up with a lot, but they are hopping mad about the quality-of-life issue that is literally in their face every day. In fact, it’s the one topic about which I asked everybody I met in June, when I traveled there for the Fortune Global Forum. How can the Chinese fix the problem and when will they? I asked.

As you might have guessed, there isn’t a simple answer. Indeed, tackling the question provokes a conundrum. The only certain way to fix the pollution quickly is to slow down the industrial economy, which would cause massive unemployment, which would cause civil unrest — exactly the problem Serwer flags regarding the pollution.

Not everyone sees it that way. “You don’t need to fix it everywhere,” says Ian Bremmer, who runs the global political-risk consulting firm Eurasia Group from New York. “What they really need to do, at least in the near term, is to address the problem in the most important cities, where people are coming in from out of the country and where there is a lot of media.” To Bremmer, the air-pollution problem is a PR screw-up more than a national crisis. He argues that the quality of life is so low in much of China that what seems unacceptable to expatriates and visiting journalists simply isn’t top-of-mind to the average Chinese citizen. “The comment that people wouldn’t take their kids out in this pollution is overblown because they can’t afford to take their kids out anyway,” he says.

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Bremmer isn’t saying pollution isn’t a problem. He notes that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China, and that in the long term Chinese behavior is potentially disastrous. But for the time being, he says, it will be business as usual. “Nothing is a crisis in the making for Xi right now. He has 7.8% growth, he’s charismatic, and he has a good team behind him. And the rest of the world is screwing up left and right.”

If Bremmer is right and Serwer is wrong, it makes for a fascinating study in contrasts. One country’s people are relatively accepting about filthy air that threatens their lives. Another country’s people are practically manning the barricades over a clunky web site that is supposed to improve their health. Go figure.

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