Downtown Beijing on July 30, 2021.

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

Beijing was once known as one of the world’s most polluted cities, with dense smog and acrid air a daily reality for residents.

Now, its skies are mostly blue — a sign the Chinese capital is entering a new era of clean air, the country’s Minister of Ecology and Environment claimed last Wednesday.

“The ‘Beijing blue’ has gradually become our new normal,” said Huang Runqiu, the minister, according to state-run tabloid Global Times, as the city recorded its best monthly air quality since records began in 2013.

Though Chinese cities have long topped global rankings of the world’s worst air quality, they have shown steady improvement over the years. Beijing only recorded 10 days of heavy air pollution last year, Huang said — a drop of nearly 80% since 2015. Recent photos from Beijing show clear blue skies and summer sun, once a rarity in the city of approximately 21 million.

The turnaround in Beijing’s air quality illustrates how successful the country’s anti-pollution campaign has been since it began in 2013 — the year of Beijing’s infamous “air-pocalypse,” when smog got so bad that levels of PM2.5, a microscopic pollutant, reached 900 micrograms per square meter, 90 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended daily level.

The air-pocalypse attracted global media attention and forced the issue into China’s mainstream — so much so, that one enterprising local brewery even named a beer after it, promising discounts on smoggy days.

For years, pollution in the capital had been euphemistically referred to as “fog,” but now, armed with new information on the dangerous effects of poor air quality, residents were no longer willing to tolerate days of labored breathing.

“It wasn’t simply the irritating Beijing cough that was attacking residents daily — it was something much worse,” said Daniel Gardner, emeritus professor at Smith College and author of “Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“Now, when they were coughing, it was a sign that they were taking in particulate matter that leads to morbidity and mortality,” he added. “And so, I think people now began to see that quality of air very differently in 2013.”

A tourist wearing a face mask looking at the Forbidden City through heavy smog in Beijing, China, on January 16, 2013.

Terms such as PM2.5 soon became part of everyday vocabulary, as people began to arrange their lives around the varying levels of pollution. And as public awareness grew, protests against coal plants began emerging in cities like Kunming and Shenzhen.

At the time, Global Times reported that public outrage was “derailing” the country’s economic growth — but, Gardner said, the government had already begun shifting its mindset.

Xi Jinping, who became president in March 2013 just two months after the air-pocalypse, saw an opportunity. By pledging to clean up pollution, he could win public support, improve China’s battered international image, lure back worried foreign tourists and expat workers, and give himself a PR boost all at once.

“The first crisis that comes across his desk is the air-pocalypse. It wasn’t just Beijing, it was in all of north China, and it made a splash,” said Gardner. “2013 was an important attitudinal tipping point, where the government is now openly saying, we are leaving behind this ‘economic growth at all cost’ policy and moving in this new direction where there is harmony between economic growth … and environmental stewardship.”

Starting that year, the government invested billions of dollars into a national air pollution action plan. It rolled out new regulations, set up nationwide air monitoring stations, and began shutting down coal mines and coal plants. By 2014, China had declared a national “war against pollution.”

timelapse beijing smog
Timelapse: Smog envelops Beijing in minutes (2017)
00:48 - Source: CNN

At first, Beijing tolerated public protests because they were localized — focusing on specific power plants in the protesters’ neighborhoods, or on local officials who had violated environmental regulations.

But that soon began to shift as the protests took on a broader scope — fueled in part by “Under the Dome,” a 2015 documentary that criticized state-owned companies, corrupt officials, and government ministries for their role in the air quality crisis. More than 200 million people watched the film within its first week, sparking fierce online debate before censors banned the film entirely.

“What I think the government was worried about, is a movement becoming national,” said Gardner. “They saw people in Beijing and Kunming and Lanzhou, in every part of China, watching this same documentary and hearing the same message … I think the perception was now that the target could grow, and go beyond the local, if this were allowed to continue.”

As the ruling Communist Party, headed by Xi, tightened its control on civil society and clamped down on social activism, police swiftly shut down environmental protests in Chengdu in 2016 and in Wuhan in 2019. Several other documentaries on environmental issues like plastic waste were also banned.

All the while, Xi prided himself on China’s antipollution campaign, often shutting down factories and limiting the number of cars on the road to ensure blue skies during important events such as a 2014 summit of Asia Pacific leaders.

Despite the improvements, there’s still a long way to go — for instance, those temporary blue skies often rebound with heavy smog. And it’s hard to know whether improvements are being seen across the country or whether the pollution is just migrating from Beijing elsewhere — especially with new plans introduced this year for dozens of coal-fired furnaces and power plant units. Environmentalists also have to be careful not to cross any political red lines, lest they anger the central government.

But viewed from once-smoggy Beijing, it’s clear that concerted efforts have paid off — perhaps one of the few times in recent years public outrage has successfully spurred Chinese authorities to act, even if those efforts were carefully managed and quickly suppressed.

China reports no new local Covid-19 cases for first time since July

China reported no new locally transmitted Covid-19 cases on Monday for the first time since July, according to its National Health Commission (NHC), the latest sign that the country’s Delta variant outbreak is beginning to lessen.

Chinese authorities have been grappling with the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant since July 20, when a cluster of Covid-19 infections were detected among airport cleaning staff in the eastern city of Nanjing.

Since then, it has spiraled into the worst outbreak China has seen in over a year, spreading to more than half of the country’s 31 provinces and infecting more than 1,200 people. The surging cases driven by Delta were seen as the biggest challenge yet to China’s zero-Covid strategy, which it had relied on to stamp out previous local flare-ups.