6 march 2014

China Outsourcing Smog to West Region Stirs Protest

By Bloomberg News, March 06, 2014

China’s leaders want to lift the gray blanket of deadly smog that often chokes Beijing’s residents by shifting power plants to the less populated western part of the country inhabited by minorities. That’s turning into a nightmare for Ani Yetahon who lives in Oriliq, a village about 1,800 miles from the capital where some residents still walk to the well for their water.

Ever since a $2.1 billion plant that converts coal into natural gas began operating in August on a hill above his village, the 37-year-old ex-policeman and his family have suffered a burning sensation in their throats that keeps them awake at night. So have his fellow villagers, who also complain of dizziness and repeated colds.

After five months of watching clouds of smoke belching into the air from a red-and-white striped smokestack, they’d had enough. On a mid-January morning, more than 200 people dragged makeshift wooden barricades across the snow and blocked the road leading to the plant. They stayed for two days, in temperatures that dipped as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit). Their demand: shut down the installation that was making them and their children ill.

Nothing changed.

“They don’t care if our children get sick or how much the pollution is affecting our village,” said Yetahon, a stocky man dressed in a gray sweater and brown leather jacket, whose village is near the Kazakhstan border. When senior police officers asked him for the names of those who organized the protest, Yetahon said he turned in his uniform and quit.
Under Pressure

Yetahon, like most people in his village, is a Uighur who lives in the restive Xinjiang province, home to 10 million mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking members of this ethnic minority. They face restrictions on their movement and religious worship.

“If we do nothing, then we live with the pollution and the damage to our health,” he said a week after the demonstration. “If we stand up and protest, that also brings hardship.”

Under pressure from an increasingly vocal middle class incensed by record levels of pollution, China in September said it won’t approve the construction of new coal-fired power plants around eastern cities. The upshot is an outsourcing of pollution west and north to provinces including Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia that are far from the glare of the media and where dissent is more tightly controlled.

Pollution Deaths

A March 1 attack by knife-wielding assailants that killed 29 people and injured more than 100 in southwest China was blamed by officials on separatist forces from Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping ordered a crackdown on terrorist activities, while opposing any backlash against ethnic minorities, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

Xi said last week pollution was Beijing’s most prominent challenge and foreign companies and residents have joined the chorus of criticism by local residents. The leadership said it plans to shutter 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces this year and reduce air pollution that results in as many as half a million premature deaths each year nationwide, according to an article in the London-based Lancet medical journal co-authored by China’s former Health Minister Chen Zhu.

At the same time, China is currently building as many as 70 coal-fired power plants in the western part of the country to meet the nation’s energy needs, according to Xizhou Zhou, Director of China Energy at IHS Inc., an Englewood, Colorado-based consulting company. In addition, the government has planned 30 coal-to-gas plants, some of which are already operational like the one that sparked protests in Yetahon’s village. Of those, at least 20 will be built in Xinjiang, according to a study by Ding Yanjun, an associate professor in Tsinghua University’s Department of Thermal Engineering.

‘People Die’

“In the short term, these projects will help the coastal cities a little bit, but in the long term this is really, really bad for the environment,” said Chi-Jen Yang, a research scientist at Duke University in North Carolina who focuses on energy policy. “It will help the smog on the coast and move the pollution to western provinces.”

Aypujan Niyaz, a 34-year-old chemical factory worker who lives in Chuluqay, a few minutes’ drive from Yetahon’s village, puts it more bluntly: “In the east it is Chinese, that’s the difference,” he said. “Here it’s over 90 percent minorities -- Uighurs, Kazakhs. If there’s pollution they will just say, ’Oh well, there’s pollution.’ If people die they will just say, ’Oh well, people die.'”


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