Gassed! Beijing’s Lethal Public Heating Grid(s)

Since late 2012 Beijing has acquired notoriety as the world’s most unbreathable capital city. Officially reported deathcounts and hospitalizations from malair asthmas are so high that statistics are constantly juggled to soften the blow to amour propre. But, on the flip side, the negative publicity has had a positive effect: much too long-delayed action to close down some if not all of the city’s hazemakers – its coal-fired electric power nexus – and replace them with natural gas has leaped ahead and already one is reading of a coal-free Metropolis not too far down the road.

But that gruesome greyblack shroud up-deposited from coal-burning is not the first encounter the city has faced with coal smog. Coal can be a much more direct killer: when it is burned to produce power and heat, one intermediate outproduct is “coal gas”, chiefly carbon monoxide, which is difficult to re-process into carbon dioxide except when purpose designed hi-temperature reactors and catalysts are designed into the system. Even in so-called “modern” US cities and suburbs, carbon-monoxide or methane – rich “town gas” gas is a remembered danger: the supplying gasworks were (are?) obliged to inject sulphur gases whose obnoxious smell substitutes for the legendary canary. In the older plants, not yet retrofitted with end-phase “gasification” (methanation), that miner’s nightmare – invisible toxic gas (meiqi zhongdu as a verb) – can be particularly dangerous when/where the steam-heat conducting pipes are undermaintained, since the steam itself can then easily become the container for carbon monoxide leaks to pass into housing units. That category of “death by public utility” seems to have been particularly problematic for those more fortunate immigrant laborers whose housing, (construction workers lacked this benefit) , was often a kind of afterthought – dormitories pegged onto the compound where their daytime labor was carried out. One such dormitory compound is the set for the film, “World”, (2004: dir. Jia Zhangke.).

The heat (steam) generated by such units is distributed via a closed grid of underground broad-diameter ducts mounted on the ceilings of halls and passageways, the heat being released in stages as the steam cools in flux.

Fig. 1 Steam-pipes from inside the “World” Theme Park’s sub-basement (adjacent to costume-changing Green room, where the cinematography begins with Xiaotao wandering in search of a bandaid 创可贴, “stick it over a wound” ).

film world underground heat ducts

In terms of energy capture efficiency, such systems are a great improvement over local coal-stoves. But they are a good deal more dangerous. When/where the steam-heat conducting pipes are undermaintained, raw coal gas often leaks into them, whence the steam itself can then easily become the container for carbon monoxide leaks to pass into housing units. That category of “death by public utility” ironically is a byproduct of relative privilege within the urban underclass: most construction workers [the bottom rung] live in self-constructed shantytowns that have no heating at all; they are thus almost homeless, waiting to be shunted to some other neighborhood once their current job is finished.

The subset of “non-resident” labor foregrounded in the film is, however, better off: it is housed in purpose built dormitories for Park workers. At the top end, the housing gets even more luxurious though available only to owners-investors: entrepreneurs profiting business-wise from The Park, summarized in/by the character of Liao Qun the show-costume seamstress, can if lucky find a housing unit apartment on the market as a kind of condominium, whose purchase not only translates into more commodious living but gives the owner a fat gain in capital return when resold. But since district heating comes with the ownership package, “condo” living can be just as dangerous as dorm living. Or at least equally exposed, since the municipality and not the owners’ collective handles the utilities, presumably with kickbacks in all directions.

It is the “dormitory” class however that lives closest to the razor’s edge. Heroine Xiaotao . … and off-and-on paramour Taisheng are its up-close representatives, and Tao’s too-often quoted recollection of spending her first days in Beijing on the threshold, getting used to a hard bed and no kang, no hot water, and making do with her plastic raincoat as a kind of tent-within-the-tentcity surrogate for “a room of her own”, keeps us aware of her peculiar class or social stratum: run-of-the-works para-artist (wenyiyuan) who will never be anything but an anonymous fixture, a klieg-lighted ghost in outrageous extotic dress.


Jia Zhangke’s award-winning “Shijie” (“World”) takes its name from a very loaded historical reference. The first ancestor is as ever a Shanghai [re]creation, a modernist (for then) take on the shopping arcade cum World’s Fair/Expo complex imported ultimately from Paris. [There is possibly a third line of heredity even predating the famous Shanghai World arcade: , though it is a forgotten one: the Beijing “newtown” of the 1910s, 新世界商场, (see, akin to Shanghai’s in that it doubled as an amusement park and as a planned open-ended larger shopping mall – in those times what we would call a “department store”, though there was no single owner or franchise subordinating the encased stores or even a linking thoroughfare running up the spine.

The second is the now long forgotten Curtainraising Pageant (kaimushi) for the Shanghai Fashion Expo of 2001 (?), the cultural-diplomatic event that first brought to prominence the choreographer then set-designers Wang Chaoge and Zhang Weiya. (A third lineage that possibly influenced the second is from the Shenzhen [Guangdong] SEZ which has mounted its own “world’s fair” on stage (in 1996 I think) as stage-spectacle “A Window on the World”, to capture “the world” for Chinese fabrics and garment exports as visual commodity: it was in fact from starlet Zhao Tao’s reminiscences of the experiences of her dance-school troupe’s year as a line-dancer in that “spectacle” that the film takes its material).

Layer on and layer over layer: the meaning turns on the cross-linguistic pun “[da]xiu” or 大秀 – or something like carnival spectacular, or “grand dazzle” as a performance (and advertising) tool, something almost instinctively inherited as tinsel remnant of the Greatest Show of All, East is Red (1964), whose “Dance of the Peoples'” finale keeps restaging itself more often than not in Mongol or Korean cliche (costume). Panoramax dance might be a better term, since the form thrives on the rotation of costumes, festishing material fabric in the manner of the French cabaret line-dance. It is a kind of peep-show, but in the version proposed by Zhang Jiake insists, meaningfully, on the “expo” connection: if the material is fluff and/or appearance only – and such it is doomed to be in the giant metaphor of the movie – then that is ironically fitting since worlds fairs are parades of exteriors or at most shopping malls in their original form, not meant for transaction but as catalogues for the presumptive but never forthcoming buyers, whose pleasure comes from possibility not culmination. Pace Benjamin!

As the now somewhat faded but never quite forgotten school of “Shanghai modern” -ist writers and their biographer(s) – Liu Na’ou/Mori Ogai and the peddlers of “sensation” – were so engrossed in or with. Baudelaire’s flaneurizers, their Japanese respondents of the 30s, Tanisazaki and of course Kawabata.

China’s Precarious Energy vs Pollution Situation: Target Shortfalls and Wishful Thinking?

Energy squeeze and energy-infrastructure expense, not to mention (more recent) pressures from within and without to bring down atmospheric pollution strangling China’s major cities, have for the last several years started to cut into economic growth as well as political legitimacy. How to (or even can?…) the two be reconciled and at what cost to the mantra of high growth, upon which so much has been staked since the ’80s, has become a permanent undertow issue, as should be evident from the endless stream of energy and pollution “side-effect” control rulings that now pours (and re-pours) from the new regulatory summit, the National Development and Reform Commission (hereafter NDRC, fagaiwei. ) since 2003 when its consolidation of central economic power(s) was finalized.

Something like a flashpoint in the regulatory nexus was reached during the end-Dec. 2012 crisis over urban air quality, coming at the transition between Plan 11 and Plan 12. An event (since become background noise) that literally “brought home” (to the capital) the non-carbon garbage that had for some many years been spewed and parked “somewhere else” (as CO^2 still can be). The brake on growth was no longer invisible or intangible: “netizens” could see and cough it, and “underage-expectancy” deaths began to be reported in the multiple ‘000s per year. may not be alone responsible for economic deceleration (see below) but it surely exacerbated it. A new stress-point has been added to planning and achievement reports: gains in efficiency of overall energy use and in the generation of electric power. (Table 1, Lines 10-11). The startling plunge after 2012 Q 1’s 8.9 YOY gain surely has a lot to do with resource expenditure tightening however much it also reflects “lower property investment, dwindling credit growth and weakening industrial production” – though the two are not anywhere presented in tandem.

Figs 1-2 .1 Declining Growth Trend – Seeking a New Mean +/- 7.0%



The Mongolian Coal Caper: from Best of Times to Worst of Times….

(This post moves on from the previous…..).

While we weren’t watching….:

The Inner Mongolian coal boom has turned into a gut-searing contraction, though one that may augur well for improving the environmental profile for the “steam coal” (for conversion to electric power) industry in N and Central China. What happened?

Figures released for the 18 months from Jan. 2013 to June 2014 (the latter including forecasts for all 2014) may not have been a total surprise, but the rate of contraction was, and so remains. While output (physical basis) had grown at an astounding 27.8%/yr from 2000-2010, suddenly 2012 was a sluggish 8%, followed in 2013 by -6.4% then (as of Aug.) -9.3% on a year to date basis for the current year. If it looks like a topout, and smells like a post-crest crash, then indeed it is probably both, and not yet over, with the decline likely to continue for another year or two, as the annual number settles at perhaps 900 million MT (raw), 15 percent below peak.

The stockprice chart for Shenhua Energy – the biggest player in that mining belt (probably 50-60% of total mine output) tell us that though a levelling out was in the air from as early as end-2011, the market outlook has continued to deteriorate all through 2013, and has notably failed to reverse back up through the current calendar year.

On the other side of the coin, the “other” coal boom province – Shaanxi (神木—府谷—东胜 mining areas) – has suffered no such a rout, certainly not in terms of national production share, which has held steady at about 12.5% and output at about 450 million MT/yr (physical bulk).

The good news may be that the shift reflects a rising market advantage for superior grade steam coal as a whole, meaning less per unit mining, and less toxic pollutants (esp. sulfuric and nitric acids related) coming out of the smokestack.

IMcompcoalslump wtext v 1


Curse of the Mongols: Lignite Stripmining and North China Air Pollution

(continued from previous post)

“The Mongolian Candidate” – or perhaps Polish?

… still on the subject of China’s “North by Northeast” bias in the concentration of worst-hit “smog” loci.

One thing that seems omitted from most explanations of (thus solutions for) the heavy skew of the worst-hit cities along the North and North east “frontiers”, converging more or less upon Beijing and its nesting province of Hebei, is the weight of transient pollution from adjacent – or even not-so-adjacent – population centers. Or at least under-emphasized.

A possibility too obvious? A lot of the miasma might have a kindred set of causes that have not so long ago been experienced in NW Germany (Brandenburg), where two filings to the European EPA (equivalent) have fingered Polish and Ukrainian power plants, remote though they be, as the source of strangling coal-emission smogs spilt over from electric power generation.

I quote here from
“Health impacts of lignite-fired power plants The German-Polish region Lusatia (Oct.2012)”

” The [excessive and insalubrious) pollution with sulfur and nitrogen oxides is [not the result of local auto emissions, but] largely caused by the energy industry[‘s use of lignite coal: (lowest grade steam coal in terms of combustible carbon )]. Once released, both pollutants react with the atmosphere to form secondary particulate matter. Nitrogen oxides also act as precursors of ozone. Both ozone and particulate matter can be transported over very long distances and thus cause impacts outside their country of origin.” Buried within the prose are two sub-arguments: particle matters from lignite can and do hang in the air over long distances, as far away [the researchers suggest) as Chernobyl in the Ukraine. [YES, that Chernobyl!!!…); and, second, that nitrous oxide derived acid “rain-smog” and its sister by-product, ozone, are characteristically heavy components in this mix.

Tale of Two Cities: Why Beijing Smog Trumps Shanghai’s and Always Will

(Research Note: There is almost TOO MUCH on the web about China’s emissions problems. But for breadth and up-to-datedness, the master document – which I just found – is “The Great Coal Cap
China’s energy policies and the financial implications for thermal coal” available at I shall refer to this document as “Coal Cap 2013”).


Beijing’s “haze” or wumai 雾霾 has been part of the landscape for a long long while. Bicyclists and now even tourists have been wearing improvised gasmasks – just as blossomed during the SARS panic of (?) – for so long that they are part of the visual landscape. But Beijing is now no longer the monopolist of this miasmatic, spooky trademark. (See, nor even anywhere near the top. Even by the compromised standards (“we are a developing nation”) of that hypertropic polity (its target is 75 micrograms/M3 of air – the WHO cut off is 25!), for the first full data-year (2013), 24 of 74 monitored cities gridmarked all across the country were in the danger zone, and not a one was in compliance with the WHO standard.

Though it must be noted that there is one cluster of cities and provinces that hover well above any rank list: 京津冀及周边地区, the so-called Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei-and-Adjacent Region (which also includes Inner Mongolia, Shandong and Shanxi). The symbolic metropoles within this region rank very high. Beijing (No. 13, at 90.1 micrograms, Tianjin (no 11) at 95.6, and Shijiazhuang (Hebei’s provincial capital) (no 2) at an unbelievable 148.5!

Even before the full results of the first year of monitoring (2013) were available, an unprecedented sense of 5-mins -to-midnight percolated through the inner core in Beijing, resulting (inter alia) in
2013年9月17日颁发了《京津冀及周边地区落实大气污染防治行动计划实施细则》program. Proof that THIS TIME concrete measures will be enforced is evident in a brand new public information video-bulletining that will not just keep everyone anywhere aware in real time of which of 74 cities scattered all across the country, but will soon also issue 48 hour warnings to those cities’ citizens who are about to encounter “red-alert” levels of particle pollution. All this is part of a State Development and Reform Commission (SDRC)’s “action plan

The “status alert” warning meant to be issued by TV looks like this:

400654824the new air wuality index expanded and translated

Though the “baseline” [yellow] contaminate levels are way above the US or global cutoff, it is at least a first step, and if it looks alarming with all that red pigment, it is meant to be so

Behind the SNG Boom: Accessing Xinjiang’s Virgin Coalfields

Beijing’s “Environments” Concerns and “Clean Coal” (CTG) Technology: Bad Air Days, or Thermo-Smog

Behind the rush into excessive SNG plant investment is a regional (not global or even pan-China) concern: to “clear the air” over the capital and in the “East” in general. Beijing has long been famous for a much circulated photograph (or set) of bicyclers pedalling down (or up) Chang’an Ave., on the flank of Tian’anmen Sq., each one wearing an improvized cloth face-wrap to keep dangerous dusts as much as possible from entering the lungs. And not just in Beijing, where dune-dusts from the Gobi have long been a presence, and still account in part for the problem. But practically in all of the major cities where Gobi sands do not reach: the pollution comes everywhere from the particulate exhausts of coal-fired power plants. It is moreover not just disaesthetic: the smog contains heavy doses of toxic sulphur and nitrogen gases from the same sources. Whistleblowers have recently concluded that exposure to thermo-electric coal pollution takes about 5 years from the lifespan of the “North” China urbanite, as compared with his “Southern” counterpart, because coal mining is heavily skewed toward the North, as therefore are those megasized coal-fired power plants built mainly to send power into the (long-distance) national grid, not (only) the nearby region.

Speaking of Smog:

Above: New York Times July 25, 2014: A tourist wore a face mask in Tiananmen Square in February as heavy air pollution shrouded Beijing. Credit Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To help get a handle on this problem – after too many years of ineffectuality – the Deregulators (name?) have decided on a toxic particulate emissions dispository trade off: bring down the level in Beijing and its sister high-smog centers in the ‘East” (+- “Northeast”), and move that class of lung-pollution “out West”:, over the horizon where maybe, because toxic emissions are still at a relatively low level (poor data to be sure) it won’t be so harmful or visually depressing. And where its price in even higher NATIONAL levels of carbon emissions (the probable if not admitted outcome) will not be so easy to track, or at least “see”, since the treck that far out west is not an easy one. (Rather like putting biochem warfare toxins manufacture on wheels, as Saddam Hussein was suspected of having planned).

Beijing bad air days vs overftrend  coal for pwoer

This seems strange given the US “clean coal” and natgas lobbies – combined as SNG or CTG promoters – have from the getgo (the 80s) promoted syngas/CTG[coal-to-gas/SNG technologies (the names can be confusing) as ways of reducing all categories of pollution (toxic, smoggic, and carbon-emittic) and making relatively cheap coal into a source of clean+cheap(er) energy.

Chinawest Phase 2: NatGas Extraction, Urban Technozone sprawl, Desertification Rollback , Water Shortage – Oi!

(Note to myself: for a short introd essay see
C:\Users\User\My JP documents\Website modules from dec 17 2010\Xinjiang development\Energy export water overusde and deserrtizayion in XiqiDonghshu.doc, p 125)

To review the terrain we have covered in our last several posts about the “West” as a major part of China’s imperial frontier building and about the stages traversed by PRC leaders in securing it:

1) The Westcountry “marchlands” – the analogy with medieval Europe is imperfect but still useful – are (or at least were before the 1950s) best and most simply defined by their vulnerability to Central Asian Muslim infiltration and occupation. Its three border-scraping provincial-scale units were so separated from the political and demographic centers (the Yellow River and Yangtze basins) that they were administered as ill-defined territories whose very names were in flux: Xinjiang (Huijiang), Qinghai (Xikang), and Inner Mongolia (Suiyuan and Rehol) were not yet on the map; from the late Qing and then during the Republic they were not so much governed as controlled by Islamic militarists who moved in and as circumstances dictated. Incorporation into the Sinitic coreland thus begins with off-and-on campaigns to colonize the area with military settlers, dispatched from the East. It was not until the 1950s when that kind of control finally stabilized, in and around the Xinjiang Construction and Development Corps (XCDC – check this) , which has its roots in the Yenan self-sufficiency program of the 1940s.

2) An inaugural phase of development centered on making the Xinjiang Territory self-sufficient in foodgrains (first wheat, then maize) to the point where a large Han civilian immigration program became diet-feasible and a modest nexus of towns and interlocking truck-use roadways could be put in place. Indigene Muslims (mainly Uighurs) were not included, and quickly approached demographic minority, though they found a place as tenants or subcontractors of the PLA-spunoff plantations (some 114 in all). Food security was more or less in place by the ’90s, but the cereals-first policy began to come apart with the paralysis or even retreat of wheat-growing in the face of higher-yield maize overplanting.

3) At some point in the early Deng Xiaoping years, the Corps began to steer toward market integration with “the East” via plantation-scale growing of cotton for longhaul overland rail shipment The effort was highly successful; less so a parallel effort with sugarbeet. But the program hit a ceiling in the late 2010s when the global slowdown undercut lint cotton import prices and made subsidized “Western” stocked and sold by the government cotton too expensive for China’s textile industry. By 2008 if not before, Xinjiang’s cotton boom was over. That crop’s role as a job-creator (if mainly for temporary harvest workers) was further undermined by frantic and perhaps overscaled mechanization of picking, which put 500-600,000 migrant workers – including Uighur women – out of supplementary income. The topping out (planned consolidation) of cotton production is however hoped to be compensated in local economic terms by downstream integration with/into cotton yarn production. As happened in the post-WWII US, relocation of mill capacity into proximity with the raw material production centers is anticipated as adding to regional value added where cotton itself is subtracting.

(4) Pretty clearly we are now well into a fourth phase of colonial/territorial development – based on low labor-cost (input) highly mechanized extractive mining (coal, oil, gas, and minerals) and almost zero internal growth feedback benefit, except perhaps for some reduction in the local price/availability of electric power for urban expansion. In an abstract sense, this reversion from surface cultivation to primary resource economics as the focal point of development planning is a step backward that threatens to further stall or even reverse agro-development by tightening the availability of surface land for further reclamation, and literally stealing water from (future) farming. From the point of view of Beijing, however, it promises still tighter integration of the Territory and its neighbors into the imperial/state nexus, since the delivered product (mainly natural gas) will have only minimal local use, and creates local income only as consumed via pipeline by electric power plants in central and east China. As extraction grows as a share of territorial value added, dependency on capital-intensive remote users will increase dramatically, handcuffing the “West” even more tightly.

But new risks to the system of control will also be added: resource depletion or interruption and environmental stresses (such as re-desertification), which will even as prospects drive “immigrant” settlers away. For a system that was built to muzzle the Islamic threat and prevent any resurgence, a demographic and stratum-reversal of colonial in-flows is not a happy prospect. Surprisingly, for an editorial environment where quantified growth is always cheerfully viewed, a forecast of this negative return hit the headlines as early as April 2003, just as the first blueprint for “Grand Western Development” became public.