Springtime in China should be scenic. But the sky is grey. The persimmons are leafless. The sweet twitter of swallows has been replaced by the harsh blare of truck horns. This is Linfen, Shanxi province, possibly the world's most polluted city, now a byword for China's environmental woes.
Linfin wasn't always a dirty word. Until recently, it was known as the "Fruit and Flower" city, the legendary capital of Chinese patriarchs Yao and Shun (24th to 23rd century BC). It once held a special place in the collective hearts of over a billion Chinese. So, what went wrong?
Our story starts in that fuzzy epoch before recorded fact, about 5,500 years ago. Shanxi province was a plateau of bracken-covered hillocks and hardy hawthorn trees. Birds flittered between blooming flowers before soaring skyward. Underneath a vast azure sky stood a solitary man, digging. He was the fabled sage, Yao. What he was digging was to completely revolutionise Chinese civilisation.
It would cement his place as the forefather of the Chinese people and inspire later generations to erect temples in his honor. Those temples would stand where he stood back then, stooped-over as he was, peering down into murky depths. He had just dug China’s very first well. His spine creaked as he straightened. His muscles were lean and sinewy and his cheekbones twitched from malnourishment.
As he stared across patchwork fields, he could not have guessed that his modest well was about to transform the very land he was surveying. The convenience of retrieving water from this well was to give the Han tribes who roamed the area a reason to settle and form a community. That settlement flourished into China’s first capital, Pingyang. Later, long after Yao’s remains had returned to the ground he once dug up, the city’s name was changed to Linfen.
Fast-Forward to 1977
The rise and fall of twenty-one imperial dynasties and the destructive Cultural Revolution have had little impact on Shanxi province’s environment. The heavens are as clear as they were when Yao first rolled up his trousers and dirtied his spade all those centuries ago. Then, in 1978, Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, set the economy on a new course.
"Socialism with Chinese characteristics" is the neologism as China's no-brakes modernisation drive pulls away from the communist curb. New factories are built. Rivers are dammed. All this construction requires energy; coal-rich Shanxi province becomes the furnace that fuels it. Beijing’s big bucks trickle into the poverty-stricken hinterland to fund more mining projects. For the first time in decades, the locals have jobs and food on the table.
Then people start dying – 147 coal miners in an accident in Sanjiao River mine in 1991. There are numerous smaller accidents leading up to the worst of all – when 166 miners die in a gas explosion in the province's north in 2004. Sources blame unscrupulous mine owners who, in collusion with corrupt local officials, flouted safety requirements to increase productivity. In 2006, 476 miners die in 149 fatal coal mine accidents throughout the province.
Unsafe mining practices are the least of the province's problems. Hospital wards swell with carbon monoxide poisonings, lung cancer cases, children suffering from birth defects. Chemicals from coking plants and collieries have leaked into the atmosphere and polluted the water table with arsenic. The pollution within the province accumulates to unheard-of-levels; Linfen is the worst affected city.
The Linfen of today is an environmental catastrophe. The atmosphere contains solid particles of fly ash, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead and arsenic that come down in the lightest drizzle. What the locals call Heiyu, black rain, falls frequently here. Soot-covered cars slush down greasy black streets. Black gunk oozes from mudguards. There are coal-black brick walls, silt-black street lamps, dark and creepy cave-black windows. Black isn't a shade in Linfen; it's an entire palette.
The city’s ancient temples and towers (some more than 700 years old), are rapidly deteriorating in the atmosphere. Acid rain falls on an estimated one third of China’s territory. In Linfen, it makes the buildings cry. Black lines streak down their walls like running mascara. Throughout the city, piles of coal are stockpiled outside homes. While Shanxi’s air pollution is mainly caused by coal combustion, residents still use the harmful black bricks to heat their homes.
Shanxi is one of China’s poorest provinces; it simply can’t afford other forms of heating. The level of sulfur dioxide gas in the atmosphere exceeds World Health Organisation standards many times over. The World Bank has estimated that, in terms of air quality, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. In Shanxi province – home to the three most polluted cities in the country – Yangquan, Datong and Linfen – the population suffocates under impenetrable smog.
The peasants who eke out a living suffer in this noxious atmosphere. Regular exposure to airborne toxins leads to bronchitis, pneumonia and lung cancer. Then there’s the water. Ingesting it leads to chronic arsenic poisoning, or Arsenicosis, which causes peripheral vascular disease, gangrenous feet (known as "black foot disease"), skin lesions, diabetes, reproductive disorders and cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung.
The ancient city of Pingyang was a cultural hub that drew people into its thriving, pulsating heart. Now anyone not too sick to travel is fleeing. Parents do anything they can to secure a future for their children in a different province, away from a town where the life expectancy is ten years below that in Beijing.
Residents Leaving – Visitors Arriving
While residents are leaving, visitors are arriving. In 2005, the government unveiled a new tourist draw card, Yao Miao Square – a hodgepodge of replicas of China’s most famous tourist attractions. An inch-high Great Wall holds hordes of microscopic Mongols at bay. Bumper cars, commandeered by three-year-olds, steamroll invisible protesters in a tiny Tiananmen Square. Its centerpiece is a gargantuan gate, Hua Men. It rises a grandiose 50 meters into the air. Its crimson doors are slightly ajar, apparently to symbolise China’s open door policy.
Linfen’s local officials are certainly “open”. The monument was the site of Miss Universal Bikini 2005. The government is hoping the edifice will increase tourism and attract investors to the provincial town; lessening its economic reliance on the coal industry. In front of Hua Men, trucks lug coal along a congested highway. They are sluggish, overworked beasts; they grunt and groan under their heavy loads. But their burden is being lightened.
In 2004, the Chinese government embarked upon a nationwide campaign to shut down thousands of private coal mines across the country, including many in Shanxi province. Early this year, thousands of small factories were closed down. It is a two-pronged approach; the government is placing restrictions on the local coal industry while at the same time encouraging other forms of economic activity. They are hoping this will set the city on a cleaner, greener course for the future.
That future is still some way off. Coal accounts for 70 percent of China’s energy consumption. The country consumes millions of tons every year to keep its steam-train economic boom on track. While small independent mines, collieries and coking plants have been shut down, government-run outfits remain open. Until China finds a viable alternative to coal power, it will continue to operate, painting Linfen’s sky a gloomy grey.
Six thousand years ago, this city symbolised a new beginning. It was home to groundbreaking technological and cultural advances. It was filled with scholars, artists, engineers and inventors forging a new civilisation. Anything seemed possible. Today the city is choking in the grip of an addiction to coal. Its temples and towers flake and crumble in the atmosphere. Its name has been dragged through the mud. There is poverty, corruption, and above all (quite literally), pollution. It is a sad eventuation; one that even the ancient sage Yao could never have envisioned happening.