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Society & Culture

The Power of the Wind: Pollution and Politics in Today’s China

May 30 , 2016

It’s the best of times and worst of times judging from Beijing’s meteorological mandate of heaven. There are those rare, precious days when the view over Beijing is a cloudless cerulean blue, harking back to a pre-industrial sky, and promising what might be resurrected if pollution can be tackled in an effective timely manner.

Then there are those dystopian days when a metallic fog descends upon the city, making for murky vistas, irritable coughs and a glum outlook for the future. Is this the new normal? Are paper masks soon to be as necessary as shirts and trousers?

When the air is toxic, one can forgive the pundits for seeing the political atmosphere through a most murky lens. They, too, are lost in the fog. The elements are around us, not easily transcended or ignored. We affect the environment and it in turn affects us.

When the gray days outnumber the blue, all the economic growth indicators, newly minted billionaires and populist propaganda in the world do not suffice to make one positive about what’s ahead and where things are going.

It is on those dark days, so dismal and gray, the worst of the Beijing naysayers seem validated.

Then an unexpected wind blows in, usually whooshing in from the western hills, and the air is cleansed, refreshed and invigorated. As if a dirty curtain were lifted, the skies glisten, high and blue.

All politics is local as is the weather, or at least it feels that way, and all winds are part of immensely huge global systems. Political whims, as much as the gathering storms of the atmosphere, are triggered at a great remove all over the planet and travel great distances to sometimes disastrous effect. In addition to the incredibly complex interactions there are a dizzying multitude of factors. There are multiplier effects, unexpected distortions and intricate chains of events, including the proverbial wind-storm caused by an unsuspecting butterfly gently flapping its wings in Brazil.

Given the shifting currents of prevailing winds, political pundits are like meteorologists—easy to take for granted when they get things right and ridiculed, even blamed, when they get things wrong. But even the world’s most capacious supercomputers can only predict a very short distance into the future; even then with incomplete input and intrinsic error.

China’s long history with its concentric cycles of buildup and decay tends to support the notion that the general political outlook is knowable, while the specifics remain indeterminate due to complexity. Even a hopelessly complex system with countless inputs tends to follow basic rules, as things move within established ranges and follow scientific patterns of cause and effect.

The cyclical patterns of wind and rain, flood and drought, hot and cold have been astutely observed for countless centuries in China. Is it no wonder that a cyclical view of history reigns, and that Chinese look to the sky for inspiration and a sign of where the wind is blowing next?

There are the predictable cycles of clamping down and opening up; there is a received sense that power flows top-down and order must be valued over chaos, but there are also recognizable junctures when change comes sweeping in from the bottom up in the form of revolution and rebellion.

Heaven’s mandate takes notice.

Despite the unspoken but durable pact between the rulers and the ruled, it is hard on any given day to say what the news, reported and unreported, portends.

Miscarriages of justice are many and widespread. Can the party rectify what’s wrong and keep the rest under wraps? There is militant posturing at sea. Recently Chinese security forces have begun to mimic the U.S.’s “worst practices.” An extraordinary rendition, by which the long arm of Chinese law reaches across borders to instill fear and compliance. In recent months there have been cringe-inducing confessions of untried suspects put on TV by their captors. When a PLA general makes bellicose remarks or a forced confession stirs up painful memories of the Cultural Revolution, are we getting a glimpse of the new normal, or witnessing a glitch in the system?

The seemingly interminable anti-corruption drive in China still enjoys considerable citizen support, and President Xi seems to be a genuinely popular leader. The over-the-top propaganda pouring out of Beijing these days is an attempt by an autocratic state to manufacture consent. It might be argued that Xi is popular despite the propaganda arm of the party which produces paeans so clunky and tone deaf that his sycophants seem to be engaged in calculated work of political subterfuge, –political death by excessive, unseemly praise.

Like the dirty skies the dark side of party politics threatens the very real accomplishments of China’s rise. One would wish it more transparent and accountable, yet even to insiders in the know there are trade-offs and consequences beyond the ken of any single individual to set right; it’s takes more than a village to ruin the environment and more than a village to fix it.

Nothing short of society-wide endeavor can stem the tide of negative trends and polluting influences. Change, for the better, and for the worse, sets in slowly and incrementally, often beyond immediate perception.

There’s an implicit pact between rulers and ruled, even in the most autocratic of countries, that upholds the status quo, as people go about their lives as best they can given imperfect circumstances. It’s dangerous to upset the status quo, but the status quo is dialectic— a two-way street. Leaders rule, but only by tacit arrangement and even then, only effectively with popular legitimacy.

Ultimately the man and woman in the street plays the role of the weatherman, and it is the people out there braving the elements to whom one should look to get a palpable sense of which way the wind’s going to blow.

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