Smog Descends on Unfortunate Harbin: more environmental embarrassment for China

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.

Thick smog envelops Harbin
Thick smog envelops Harbin

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.

Thanks to Russian investment, Harbin was one of China's most modern cities by the 1920s
Thanks to Russian investment, Harbin was one of China’s most modern cities by the 1920s

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.

The Kwantung Army enters Harbin
The Kwantung Army enters 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.

'Capitalist roaders' await execution during the Cultural Revolution
‘Capitalist roaders’ await execution during the Cultural Revolution

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.

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Xi’s Self-Criticism Plea Raises Spectre of Mao

Xi Jinping, China’s President, has been on a mission to improve the integrity and performance of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials across the country by encouraging ‘criticism’ and ‘self-criticism’ sessions amongst high-ranking Party cadres.

Xi wants the self-criticisms to help eradicate formality, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance from the CCP
Xi wants the self-criticisms to help eradicate formality, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance from the CCP

Plagued by top-level corruption scandals, and with a youth population increasingly intolerant of its politicians’ corruption and excess, the CCP is, in Xi’s eyes, in need of rebuke and reform.

Commentators who heralded Xi’s succession to the Chinese presidency may well find themselves disappointed at this development so early in his rule, for the notion of ‘self-criticism’ is inextricably linked with the reign of Mao Tse-Tung and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao had encouraged criticisms as early as 1942, before the CCP had come to power. He initially used them as a means to keep his colleagues humble and cowed, to prevent them become imbued with an arrogance that came with increasing power, a power that could rival his own. Simultaneously, Mao viewed the criticisms of the CCP as a way to draw out Party ‘enemies’ who unwittingly fell into his trap, particularly if they criticised one of the Chairman’s own policies. Punishments invariably involved torture, imprisonment, detention in work camps and execution.

After the CCP won power in 1949, Mao introduced the concept of “self-criticisms” whereby Party officials were ordered to expel their own failings in front of groups of their peers, the latter adding their own criticisms to the proceedings. This not only gave the impression that all except Mao were flawed, thus preserving his superiority, but it gave the peasantry and the lower classes an outlet for their frustration and anger during the years of the Great Leap Forward, when starvation and poverty proliferated. Mao avoided criticism himself by organising collective criticisms of those officials he wanted to be deemed culpable for his own mistakes.

By illuminating the perceived weaknesses of his Party cadres through self-criticisms, Mao retained his superiority
By illuminating the perceived weaknesses of his Party cadres through self-criticisms, Mao retained his superiority

During the Cultural Revolution, self-criticism sessions were a daily event and designated ‘bourgeois’ and ‘capitalist-roader’ officials (basically anyone providing a real or imagined challenge to Mao and his deluded policies) were subjected to a barrage of vitriolic abuse which was often combined with horrific physical torture at the hands of the militant Red Guards who Mao had indoctrinated. Even senior leaders such as Zhou Enlai would be forced into self-criticisms.

Forced self-criticisms broke the will of many loyal Party members
Forced self-criticisms broke the will of many loyal Party members

Why Xi has chosen this particular phraseology – undoubtedly aware as he must be of its connotations – is debatable. One potential reason is that the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is upon us (1st October) and he is keen to show that the CCP has retained its revolutionary commitment.

A second possible reason is the fallout of the Bo Xilai scandal. Bo was a hardline leftist with a Maoist philosophy and is thought to have gained many supporters within the Chinese political establishment. This ‘shift to the left’ by Xi may be an attempt to appease those potential troublemakers angered by Bo’s imprisonment.

It may just be that Xi thinks it necessary to return to the culture of fear created during Mao’s reign to finally put an end to the ongoing corruption crisis within the CCP.

Whatever the reasoning, Xi’s self-criticism sessions have been mocked and denigrated by Chinese internet users canny enough to bypass the state-imposed firewall. Whether this will deter the President from pursuing this reinvented policy remains to be seen. Yet for those believing his ascent to power may have ushered in a period of liberal reform in China, they may have to make a reassessment.