Environmental Issues in Modern Shanghai

On December 6, 2013, the city of Shanghai was struck by one of the worst episodes of smog-related pollution in recent memory.  Skyscrapers disappeared and flights were cancelled as the city’s pollution index reached the number 484 on the 500 point national scale. In the Pudong district alone, the PM2.5 scale – a scale measuring the density of the fine particles that pose the greatest danger to public health – has reached 600 micrograms per square meter.  

The “Airpocalypse” – part of a larger smog crisis in northwestern China – is but one illustration of a larger ongoing problem. While the rise of industrial capitalism in Shanghai and elsewhere has long been associated with environmental deterioration, recent episodes of extreme pollution have led to growing awareness of the city’s environmental problems. Events like the 2012 Yingehai pollution protests, Chai Jing’s 2015 documentary Under the Dome, and the 2013 smog crisis have all contributed to a growing interest in environmental issues both inside and outside of China.  

Throughout the Maoist era, Shanghai was neglected by the central government and lagged behind as an economic force.  However, the 1985 appointment of Jiang Zemin as mayor, and his subsequent succession by Zhu Rongzhi, led to an economic revitalization of Shanghai under the laissez-faire financial policies of Deng Xiaoping. An industrial revival during the 1980’s saw both the return of commercial prosperity and the roots of today’s pollution problem. During the 1990’s, the city pivoted away from heavy industry and towards the direction of financial capitalism, utilizing significant urban planning programs in the process (sometimes known as the “Great Leap Outward”).

The post-1980 return of Shanghai to prominent economic status brought with it problems of urban growth and governmental policy.  While the government has made efforts to combat the spread of pollution, such efforts have proved counterproductive. Economic liberalization under Deng Xiaoping and his premier, former Shanghai mayor Zhu Rongzhi, led to massive rural migrations to the city, which caused overcrowding and numerous environmental issues.  

Between 1980 and 2015, the city’s population rose by 18 million, with 300,000 new residents arriving each year.   In 1995, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and the Shanghai CCP Propaganda Department launched an investigation into urban problems and concluded that the city suffered from a combination of population congestion and antiquated building systems.  Subsequently, authorities embarked on a campaign to relocate citizens to suburban areas and move away from heavy industry, seeking to reduce both overcrowding and pollution. State owned factories were replaced by commercial buildings as residents of the city center were moved to new homes in areas like Pudong, where foreign capital financed the creation of a new district in the Yangtze Valley under Jiang Zemin’s “Land Grant” program.

The issue with the state’s approach to environmental issues is that it replaced one problem – urban sprawl – with another: the construction industry.  The establishment of Pudong and other suburban communities sparked a frenzy in the industry that furthered the spread of pollution. Additionally, the increased size of the city boosted the transportation industry, a major source of pollutants.  

In recent years, the government has taken a more direct approach to attacking pollution.  This has taken several different forms – regulations on vehicle emissions, a shift towards public rather than private transportation, a move against polluting companies, and an increase in the power of environmental authorities.

First, authorities have attempted to reduce vehicle emissions by encouraging the adoption of electric cars.  Buyers are exempted from purchasing license plates and going through the usual auctions, which can cost up to 10,000 U.S. Dollars. In 2014, over 70,000 polluting vehicles were retired.

Second, city authorities have encouraged the use of public transportation over private cars.  By 2020, Shanghai’s metro is estimated to stretch 800 kilometers and include 500 stations, making it the largest in the world.  Electric and gas powered buses have also been introduced in recent years.

Third, polluting companies have also been a target of recent environmental reforms, especially after the beginning of mayor Yang Xiong’s anti-pollution campaign in 2014.  In 2013, low performing installations and facilities were shut down for environmental reasons, while efforts were made to conform environmental regulations to the central government’s standards.   

Fourth, the government has attempted to reduce pollution by expanding the power of environmental agencies. In 2014, the nation’s environmental laws were significantly tightened.  Limits on pollution fines were lifted, and company bosses could now be detained for up to fifteen days for failing to follow regulations.

The effects of such policies are difficult to discern,  as most of these developments have taken place within the past four years and long term results have not yet been observed.  One reason for skepticism is the gulf between legislation and enforcement. In the past, numerous environmental regulations have been ignored by the majority of Chinese businesses.  On the other hand, the negative economic effects of pollution – namely it’s propensity to frighten away foreign investment – may spur a genuinely enforced environmental campaign on part of the Chinese Communist Party.  The inclusion of environmental issues as part of President Xi’s new agenda would suggest that this is perhaps likely to be the case.  

It is somewhat difficult to consider Shanghai a microcosm of China’s larger, nationwide pollution issues.  Certainly Shanghai shares a pollution problem with the majority of China’s urban centers. However, Shanghai’s situation differs from that of other Chinese cities in two fundamental ways: firstly, its levels of pollution are not as severe, and secondly, the underlying causes of its pollution are not entirely similar.

Shanghai’s proximity to the sea and rainy climate have spared it from the more severe environmental problems experienced by Beijing, Chengdu, and Shenyang.  As compared to Beijing, for example, Shanghai’s PM2.5 index is 33 points lower, while its overall pollution index is lower than Beijing by over six points.  Additionally, Shanghai’s water quality, though poor by global standards, still exceeds that of Beijing.   While still behind much of the world, Shanghai is better than other Chinese cities in its levels of pollution.  It is therefore somewhat difficult to describe it as a microcosm of Chinese environmental woes.

Shanghai is also a poor case study for overall Chinese pollution because the root causes of its problems differ somewhat from those of China at large. Shanghai’s pollution problems stem mainly from the automobile and building industries, whereas, the main causes of overall Chinese pollution are coal production, pesticides, Yellow Dust, and lead.  

Today, Shanghai’s environmental future is uncertain. Recent steps taken by the local and national government to further regulate heavy industry are quite promising. While the success of such efforts largely depends on the Chinese government’s willingness to enforce the law, President Xi at least appears to take the matter seriously. Although the city’s environmental condition remains bleak for the present, these recent developments are a cause for some cautious optimism.  Shanghai’s future is perhaps not grim as it appears to be.