For years, Beijing has been synonymous with bad air quality. So, I was stunned by what I saw during a recent five-week visit. On many days, the Beijing skies looked as though they had been stolen from Renaissance paintings.
The skies were beautiful shades of blue, sometimes highlighted with white clouds. From my 17th-floor hotel room, I could see not only the distant northern mountains that cradle the Ming Tombs, but other peaks behind those ranges.
In 20 trips to China spanning nearly as many years, I have never seen anything like it. Why the big difference? This is not like the 2008 Summer Olympics when factories were shut down temporarily in order to improve air quality.
Perhaps China’s environmental reforms are working. Polluters have been forced to modernize plants, move out of Beijing, or close. Even the Beijing city government intends to relocate to the farthest reaches of that vast municipality. That change will improve the air in the part of the city where most people work and travelers visit.
Though China is reducing its widespread use of coal as a source of power, poor quality oil and auto emissions are tremendous problems. However, alternative sources of energy, like thermal, are on the rise. When flying into Beijing, one is more likely to spot forests of wind turbines than the Great Wall.
Another possibility is climate change. Global warming is supposed to redistribute weather patterns. Just as some American cities are getting more rain this year, maybe Beijing is the beneficiary of better weather. Not only were Beijing’s skies bluer and clearer, but the temperatures were a bit milder and there were tropical-type showers some afternoons.
President Xi Jinping’s much publicized anti-corruption campaign would seem to be an unlikely cause of the improved air quality. That crackdown has sent many dishonest politicians to jail and banned the waste of public funds on extravagant meals, entertainment and travel.
Some Chinese professors think that the anti-corruption campaign is working, despite its alleged abuses and lack of transparency. Even tourists can sense the impact. Many restaurants are largely empty, and it is easier to get a taxi. If this is the reason, previously there must have been a great deal of public money sloshing around.
When I asked my Chinese friends if there is a link between the anti-corruption campaign and the blue skies, most balked. However, one human rights lawyer quickly agreed that there is a connection. He said that because of the crackdown and its severe penalties, industrialists are now afraid to bribe officials to look the other way so that they can dump pollutants into the air.
As I pondered this possible correlation upon return to San Antonio, a train crept down the tracks at about five miles per hour while city traffic waited. That reminded me that on the same day China, the country with the world’s best airports, was opening a new elevated rail line in Anhui province as part of its vast high-speed network of trains that travel 200 mph.
To be sure, Beijing still has bad air days, and there are many other problems like poor food safety and repression of speech. But maybe the U.S. has something to learn, if China can make the trains run fast and turn the skies blue.
*Featured/top image: Blue skies prevail over Tiananmen Square and the National Museum of China on June 11, 2015. Photo by Vincent R. Johnson.