Chinese Lawyers Sue Government over Smog ‘Airpocalypse’

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Several lawyers in China have banded together to sue the governments of Beijing and other municipalities in the province of Hebei over the pervasive smog clouding the region.

The lawsuit was announced just as the photograph below began percolating through global media:

Students take ‘smog-exams’ in PM2.5-500 playground in C China’s Henan; The principal has been suspended https://t.co/cwAUXl6w2d pic.twitter.com/0jjvRbAWqs

— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) December 21, 2016

That’s from the Global Times, a state-run publication that is not normally inclined to publish anything that puts the Chinese government in a bad light. In this case, the students were in such bad light from the smog that attention had to be paid.

As the Global Times reported in the linked story, the photo comes from Henan Province where the smog level is currently about twenty times higher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines.

Classes have reportedly been suspended until the smog alert is lifted. There is some controversy over whether the school depicted in the photo responded to the smog alert properly. The principal said something about how the smog “wasn’t bad” when they started, and “all the organization had been done” for the tests, which is a quintessential mainland-China answer.

According to Reuters, increased use of coal for the winter plus “unfavorable weather conditions” have triggered pollution “red alerts” in 24 cities, ten of them located in Hebei province.

This is essentially what happened in the Great London Smog of 1952, an event dramatized in an episode the currently popular TV series The Crown. Chinese citizens can certainly hope their plight is nowhere near as serious as the London event, which killed some 4,000 people. Of course, it is also not 1952 anymore.

Speaking out on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, lawyer Li Zhongwei blasted local governments for being “all talk and little action” and accused them of failing to “conscientiously fulfill their legal obligations to control air pollution.”

The lawyers also blamed “toxic economic growth” for endangering the health of citizens, although one of them, Cheng Hai, seemed to think blaming economic growth per se was a dodge, and the real culprit was official incompetence.

“We believe that China’s smog is not unavoidable, but is the result of weaknesses in governance. Ordinary people think that the previous stage of economic growth led inevitably to smog, but this is completely wrong,” said Cheng.

The UK Guardian reports tens of thousands of “smog refugees” fleeing the “airpocalypse” in northern China, where half a billion people are currently living under “a blanket of toxic fumes.” Greenpeace is cited estimating the number of people affected is equivalent to the combined populations of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Greenpeace noted that driving in Hebei province is a bit challenging these days:

Wondering what northern China’s #airpocalypse really feels like? This was the view in suburban Tangshan, Hebei province, yesterday afternoon pic.twitter.com/hsJS2w8NZF

— Greenpeace East Asia (@GreenpeaceEAsia) December 20, 2016

Here is a taste of the indoor lifestyle:

Had both air purifiers in bedroom for the night so kitchen and living room had hazardous levels in the morning. pic.twitter.com/kTv6MKnIDT

— Lauri Myllyvirta (@laurimyllyvirta) December 19, 2016

“You ask me why I left Beijing? It’s because I want to live,” a young resident told the Guardian on her way to a smog-free resort.

Reuters points out that under current Chinese environmental protection laws, the only way to take legal action against the government is by acting through nonprofit “social organizations” that have been approved by the government. The lawyers pushing the current suit said they expected to know whether it will be allowed to proceed within seven days.