“Dawang is a toxic town. You can’t imagine that those industries dare to emit toxic air nowadays. We can’t open the windows or use the air-conditioner because there is a strong, pungent chemical smell in the middle of the night” (“Air Quality of Dawang”). This quote is from an online forum, discussing the air quality of a town in Zhaoqing. Zhaoqing is a tourist city in Guangdong, China, which was once famous for its air quality, but for the last decade, it’s been rare to see the blue sky in the city. Citizens were once proud of the environment of the city, but since polluting industries were established, the sky of the city is usually gray and obscure. The local government, under the pressure of making economic progress, introduced polluting industries, and indulged in certain illegal emissions. Citizens have to suffer from smog weather and tourism, one of the major income sources of the city.
There was a high expectation from the provincial government in Guangdong, to see the economy of Zhaoqing improve, which put great pressure on the local government. Zhaoqing is within the “Pearl River Delta” region, one of the most important economic centers in China. From 1970 to 2020, the “Pearl River Delta” region grew from “40,000 square km of hilly and paddy fields” to “China’s densest city clusters, including Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the 3rd and 4th largest cities in the country”
(Wong). Recently, the “Great Bay Area plan is trying to connect this area with Hong Kong and Macao to establish a “world-class city cluster” and a modern economic center. However, Zhaoqing is the most underdeveloped city within this fast-developing area. In 2009, Zhaoqing’s GDP was 83,700,000,000 yuan, the least of all cities in the “Pearl River Delta” region, and this number was even less than 1/10 of Guangzhou’s GDP (“Zhaoqing in Pearl River Delta”). From this point of view, the economy of Zhaoqing was considered a limitation for regional development in Guangdong, so the responsibility to promote the economy of the city fell on the city government.
It was difficult to improve Zhaoqing’s economy in the short run because the overemphasis on traveling in the 2000s left a weak foundation of industrial development. The industrial development of Guangdong started in the 1980s when a large number of businesses in Hong Kong entered the province, which led to the rapid development of most cities in the “Pearl River Delta Region”. However, since 1994, the provincial government has aimed to build Zhaoqing into an “international tourism and leisure city” (Wong). Factories in Zhaoqing gradually declined or moved to other cities. However, it was difficult to develop the economy with traveling business at the same pace as other cities did, which relied on industries and manufacturers. Traveling once even contributed over 40 percent of GDP in Zhaoqing in the 2010s (Wen). Since the economic structure of the city—traveling as the main business—has been established, boosting local GDP in the short run is a tough task for the city government.
The government found the shortcut—introducing industries from other cities to promote Zhaoqing’s economy—with the air pollution. In 2008, there was a trend that labor-intensive industries were transferred from port cities to underdeveloped inland cities. Introducing factories from Guangzhou and Foshan, Zhaoqing’s government established a High-Tech zone in the city, which increased industrial production by 1/3 (Xie). These factories indeed stimulated the economic development in Zhaoqing. Between 2000 and 2008, the annual GDP grew 15% each year, but after the policy was implemented, in 2010 and 2011, the annual GDP grew by 24% each year (“Zhaoqing GDP Increment”). However, the factories also started the air pollution in Zhaoqing. A large proportion of industries entered were pottery and cement factories, which emitted sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter; therefore, acid rain and smog weather emerged in the city. In 2010, the frequency of acid rain reached 81.2% (Yi); in 2015, the smog in Zhaoqing frequently reached the top in the list of “Cities with the worst smog weather in China” ( Yi).
Trying to pursue a high economic growth rate in the short run, the local government even introduced problematic industries, which led to further air pollution. Each mayor, understanding that they usually worked in Zhaoqing for merely 3-5 years, tried to maximize the short-run economic progress to show their ability, which helped them reach higher political positions. For example, in 2011, as the Nanbo Glass corporation was introduced to Zhaoqing under the guidance of Mayor Pinghua Xu, the headline of Guangzhou newspaper was “Congratulation! Congratulation! The ‘Dirty Glass’ was finally wiped—the polluting Nanbo Glass was transferred to Zhaoqing” (Yuan). Zhaoqing got an abandoned polluting factory from Guangzhou. After Mayor Pinghua
Xu left Zhaoqing and became an official in the provincial government in 2017, some factories, including Nanbo Glass, introduced by her were soon investigated and even forced to shut down because of their environmental problems. (“50 Pottery Factories Shut down in Zhaoqing”). Several similar short run economic stimulus attempts failed
in the long run. Factories like Nanbo contributed a large amount of pollution to the air, research shows that the year those factories relocated in Zhaoqing, the volume of polluted air doubled—from 557.38 hundred million cubic meters to 1196.84 hundred million cubic meters (Wong).
Instead of controlling the pollution of the incoming problematic industries, the local government ignored it. Understanding that the polluting industries can make significant contributions to the economy, the government was reluctant to regulate the pollution. In Dawang, the “toxic town” at the beginning of this essay, no matter how many times citizens complain to the government regarding the “mid-night” emission, there is no regulation to the industries (Wong). The illegal emissions and the indulging attitude of the government was eventually punished. In 2017, as the environmental groups from the provincial government investigated two pottery factories in the middle of the night, volatile raw materials were exposed in the open air, and coal tar was disposed of improperly. Within the same year, the mayor of the city was investigating indulging the illegal emissions (Ma).
Air pollution not only affects people physically but also influences their pride in the environment for the city. It’s reported in 2014, one of the worst years of air
pollution, that patients with the respiratory disease increased unexpectedly, and the rate of nasopharynx cancer also increased (Wong). The smog weather also decreased visibility, which led to the 8-car-chain collision on the expressway near Zhaoqing in 2017 (Chain Crash in Zhaoqing). On the other hand, people’s faith in the cities was also destroyed by the air pollution. With the traveling industry developing for over 10 years, Zhaoqing’s citizens were proud that they are living in a city with an outstanding environment and air quality. To a certain degree, citizens’ happiness originated not from economic development but the environment. As the industrial development did not bring apparent economic progress, but the smog weather agitated citizens for years, people lost their pride in the city.
The traveling business and property business was also hit because of the air pollution. The smog covered all the scenery, which made it difficult to attract tourists. Even though the air quality increased to a certain level, people had lost interest in Zhaoqing. In 2019, Zhaoqing’s scenic spots received a total of 42.053 million tourists (115,000 per day on average), only 75% of last year (Wong). Zhaoqing spent a lot advertising its environment and air quality, trying to attract people to live in the city, however, the advertisement attracted real estate to invest in lands in Zhaoqing. They targeted retired people who hope to live in a traveling city. This led to the property business having become the second-largest business in the city. As the air pollution became severe, fewer people bought houses in Zhaoqing, and the new properties soon became a waste of resources.
Under the demand for making economic progress and people’s awareness of the change of air quality, Zhaoqing’s government is still trying to reach the balance between industrial development and the environment. In 2020, due to the influence of
COVID on industrial production and the regulation of the provincial government, the air quality of Zhaoqing became much better. Mr. Chen, who moved from Guangzhou to Zhaoqing, claims that “The air quality has indeed improved compared to the previous years. The sky is usually blue and clear. Zhaoqing is still the best choice for retired people like me in the province. Keeping high air quality should be the most important job for the government” (Wong).
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