The sun doesn’t shine in Bejing anymore. Well, it still shines, but it’s now hidden behind a thick layer of smog that engulfs the bustling metropolis every morning. Only on rare days, when the climatological conditions are optimal, can a strip of blue sky be discerned.
China, which has made a concerted effort to clean Beijing’s air for the Olympics, has now surpassed the United States as the main producer of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Per capita, Americans still produce five times as much as the average Chinese, but that may well change by 2050, when China’s population is expected to peak at 1.5 billion people. Even now, a recent study concluded, 30 percent of China’s fauna is seriously endangered.
Shanxi is the most polluted province of China, producing 30 percent of the country’s coal. Datong, about 300 kilometers away from Beijing, boasts a coal-fueled electricity plant that provides half of Beijing’s energy needs. On the big boulevards of Datong, by Chinese standards only a midsized city with 3 million inhabitants, coal merchants traveling by horse and cart defy a busy stream of traffic. Datong is proud of a world-famous attraction: the Yungang caves, where gigantic Buddha statues sheepishly grin at the thousands of visitors who throng to the site every year. These days, however, a thin layer of black soot covers the statues — soot from the Jin Hua Gong state mine, just a few miles down the road.
Deeper south in Shanxi Province is another tourist attraction: the ancient walled town of Pingyao, which looks like time came to a standstill five centuries ago. Tourist guides describe picturesque Pingyao as the most atmospheric town in China. But visitors can go just a few miles south to the industrial town of Linfen, where a gloomy industrial zone unfolds. It is a dark landscape where shepherds drive their sooty sheep through Dickensian alleyways. Rivers have become open sewers, covered with strange-smelling orange foam. The centralized politics of China can get things done. The evidence is Linfen, a city that a year ago topped the list of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. On bad days, visibility was only 60 feet, and most inhabitants donned facemasks to protect themselves against the poisonous fumes, mainly caused by heating coal. But the government shut down the biggest polluters and forced inhabitants to switch to gas heating. Last winter, the skies turned blue again, and facemasks have become the exception.