Week In News: Responding To China's Pollution Problem

Regular contributor and The Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows is in Shanghai, China, this week. Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden speaks with him about all things China, including the country's response to the pollution problem and the hopes pinned to their new president.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, one of the greatest arrangers of the bebop years, now largely forgotten, and a device that allows the deaf to feel music. But first, James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Today, though, he's speaking to us from Shanghai, of all places. Hi there, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Jacki.

LYDEN: Well, I'm fascinated to talk to you about China. I know you've covered it closely for a long time. You're a great China watcher. So you've come back. What's on your agenda? What's striking you?

FALLOWS: Well, I try to come back pretty often just because any time you're away for more than a month or two, things have changed. And it's striking to see both some things that seem to be going wrong for China, especially on the environmental front and some political prospects that at least at the moment, many people here are taking as being somewhat encouraging.

LYDEN: Hmm. Well, shall we do the politics first?

FALLOWS: Yes. So right now in Beijing, there are the famous dual meetings of the Chinese government where they have sort of their equivalent of a two-week-long state of the union extravaganza. The bad side of that is there's all sorts of security clampdowns in China. The Internet is largely unusable for many parts of the country except Beijing.

But it's really interesting and surprising to me in the talks I've had with all sorts of Chinese people that there seems to be some degree of hope that the new president, Xi Jinping, will actually be a reformer and will begin addressing some of the political and corruption and other problems the country has. One person was telling me just today that an important marker of how far this reform will go is whether any provincial governors or other big shots are arrested in the next few months.

LYDEN: So sort of a timetable there. Tell me about the pollution, Jim, and it's something that we hear more and more about China.

FALLOWS: It is almost incredible to describe, and I say that having lived here for three years from 2006 to 2009. And we were in Beijing for a couple of months, my wife and I, two years ago. It's at a level that really, you don't find in other parts of the world except if you're in the middle of a forest fire. Where - people in Beijing and Northern China are just talking about the way in which this makes it a burden to get through the day's activity and really makes them think whether the basic course of the Chinese economy needs some fundamental readjustment.

One nice little detail is that a leading international school in Beijing has installed a kind of pure air dome - airlock dome over their playing field so the kids can go outside during the day. Many families just keep their kids inside for days on end when the pollution is too bad.

LYDEN: You know, it's almost kind of sci-fi. Is it leading to anything that we would recognize as an environmental voice in China or environmental groups?

FALLOWS: It has to a surprising degree. For example, as I think you and I discussed a while ago, there is now a carbon tax the Chinese government is proposing. And Chinese journalists who are constrained in many, many areas of what they can report on seem to be unleashed in being able to say that the environment is a problem. Just a few minutes ago, I was watching a show on Chinese TV where it was showing little kids pointing sorrowfully at all the dead fish in a local pond and saying that something had to be done about this.

LYDEN: Yeah. Jim, just a couple of weeks ago, there was the news of these massive cyberattacks by China on the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. And the foreign minister has just rejected these claims. So one wonders, is the issue about hacking operations, is that still a big bone of contention between D.C. and Beijing?

FALLOWS: It certainly is an ongoing reality, and I will say that probably nobody outside the Chinese foreign ministry, probably even there, believe the spokesman's claim that the Chinese government had nothing to do with this. On the other hand, the Chinese point out the U.S. is always active in this field too. And so I think what will probably happen is that away from the front pages, the U.S. government and other foreign governments and companies will begin putting more pressure on the Chinese to try to correct this activity.

LYDEN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic, and he also follows China. Read about it on his blog, jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, I don't know how to say good-bye in Chinese, but thank you for speaking to us from Shanghai.

FALLOWS: So, (foreign language spoken), Jacki.

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