XINGTAI – The decision, made in January 2013, for 74 Chinese cities to publish their pollution levels in real time only confirmed what many here already feared: Xingtai’s air quality is the worst in China.

And yet, no protesters have taken to the long Iron and Steel street, which goes from the north of the city to the south, and is home to a steel factory and a coal-fired power station. Instead, reactions of residents waver between muffled anger, doubts about the efficiency of the measures taken, and resignation.

“In private, people complain in the evening that they can never see the stars,” says Su Yuhong, a cashier at a grocery located just opposite the steel mill’s blast furnaces.

This 39-year-old woman can’t remember having seen a blue sky even once over the past year. On her smartphone, an app tells her each morning the extent of the damage. The reading is very often above 300 micrograms of fine pollutants per cubic metre of air, a threshold that means the level of pollution is “critical,” even though Chinese standards are more indulgent than in the West.

Su has no doubt that air pollution has an impact on the health of young and old residents alike.

It took the intervention of the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai and publication of their own readings to force China’s government to agree to more transparency on the issue. Now you only need to calculate the average over a whole year, as Greenpeace did in January, to discover that China’s six most polluted cities are all located in the Hebei province (surrounding Beijing).

In Xingtai, the average level was 155 micrograms of fine pollutants per cubic meter, with a one-day peak at 688.

City authorities did not respond to Le Monde’s request for an interview, but Li Gang, head of a local environmental office, recently told the China Securities Journal how Xingtai’s now notorious and unenviable ranking puts the city’s civil servants under pressure, fearing the wrath of Beijing for the poor air conditions.

The small environmental office has to send the pollution readings to local officials three times a day. “If they see that the number of fine pollutants is on the rise, they call us and tell us to do something about it. We must be available and ready to act 24 hours a day,” he explained.

Still, the directors of the region’s heavy industry sites have their own grievances. During meetings with officials, they complain of the recent application of usage costs for sulfate and nitrate filters, which they say reduces their benefits and, consequently, threatens employment. So to save money, industrials turn the filtration systems off at night, when Li Gang and his colleagues are not there to see.

Cycling in Xingtai. Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA 

The local authorities have taken several impromptu measures to combat pollution. For example, when the level of particles is too high, employees of the road maintenance department spray water on the tarmac to prevent coal dust from flying. This happened between Feb. 13 and 15, following two other critical episodes in December and January.

Outside activities in school are banned on such days. The city also requires tarpaulin covers for trucks carrying fuel, and is trying to set up an alternate traffic circulation system.

But the inhabitants of Xingtai have long stopped believing in miracles, as the presence of coal in the region encouraged the most polluting industries to settle there from the early years of the People’s Republic of China. 

Shi Longhui is a monk, whose small temple in the city is made of red bricks that contrast with the omnipresent grey. He notes that there have been efforts to remove the mountain of scree and ashes from the mines and the factories that were making life impossible for the inhabitants of the southern suburb. For almost six months, dozens of dump trucks gradually moved the pile of toxic waste. It was then used to raise the level of the land for the construction of a new highway. A factory that released acid vapors was forced to close.

Still, Shi Longhui believes the authorities cannot do more than that without risking hurting both the local economy and jobs. “Closing down more factories would have a negative impact on the economy. It’s also important for people to keep their jobs,” he warns.

Just two steps away, 56-year-old storekeeper Li Heping thinks that the air has become much too unhealthy to continue with this kind of business-only reasoning — noting that you only need to walk down the street for your shirt to get dirty.

“You need to consider the economy, of course, but the environment should have become the priority a long time ago,” he says.