Schools, motorways and airports closed in the Chinese northeastern city of Harbin today as a vicious smog descended upon the population. People donned protective masks as they tried to navigate their way through the impenetrable mist, a further sign of China’s major pollution problem.
For life to be brought to a virtual standstill is not only a global embarrassment for China amid its continuing inability to regulate pollution levels, but it is also economically damaging. Harbin is an important industrial city and manufacturing output is likely to be severely affected by the smog. This industrial importance is a legacy of Harbin’s historical development and no doubt a significant contributor to its pollution issues.
Having been little more than a mud village at the end of the 19th century, Harbin’s industrial capacity was nurtured by Russian emigres as the Tsar sought to extend the influence of his Far Eastern territory in the dying days of imperial rule. Used as a major base during Russia’s humiliating defeat against Japan during the war of 1904-5, Harbin’s economy benefited from the arrival of the Chinese Eastern Railway. By 1930 it was home to a plethora of foreign nationals, many fleeing the Bolshevik takeover of Russia following the October Revolution, and had become an important industrial city during a period of social and political upheaval in China.
On the 4th February 1932, however, Harbin fell to the Kwantung Army of Imperial Japan after a quick siege during the Invasion of Manchuria. After suffering an artillery barrage and bombing by Japanese aircraft, Harbin’s residents soon found themselves citizens of the puppet government of Manchukuo. This ushered in a miserable decade for Harbin, whose citizens were ruled with little consideration by the Japanese occupiers and their Chinese puppets. Additionally, the infamous Unit 731 – a barbaric regiment conducting chemical and biological experiments on live subjects – was based in Harbin.
Succour would again come from Russia as the Soviets invaded Manchuria in August 1945. The relief at the Japanese eviction would soon be replaced by an intense hatred of the Soviet ‘liberators’ whose denigrating attitude towards the Chinese peasants seemingly went against their socialistic credentials.
After over 10 years of wartime occupation, Harbin was at the forefront of the Great Leap Forward ushered in by the new communist regime of Mao Tse-Tung. Whilst this increased the industrial capacity of Harbin, aided by loans and technological expertise from the neighbouring Soviets, it created widespread famine and poverty for millions of citizens. Likewise, during the Cultural Revolution, Harbin’s multicultural heritage was dismantled with the destruction of churches, temples and statues by Mao’s fanatic Red Guards.
Despite a fairly miserable history, Harbin has benefited from the ‘opening-up’ of the Chinese economy after Mao’s death and Deng Xiao-Ping‘s reforms. A technological and trading hub, it is the largest economy in Heliongjiang province and has seen economic growth rates exceeding 10% for most of the past 20 years. With foreign investment flowing freely, it appears as if Harbin is destined to become a leading regional economic centre.
That is why such pollution horrors as evidenced today are significantly damaging. If there is a suggestion that such environmental conditions are likely to deteriorate further, it will dissuade further foreign investors who may fear the affects to productivity.
For a city that has recovered impressively from years of wartime occupation and decades of communist diktats, it would be unfortunate if its continuing development was inhibited by a thick haze of smoke.