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By Ari Phillips on November 26, 2013 at 11:08 am

If James Carville was giving the Chinese government public relations advice, he might say something like, “It’s the pollution, stupid.” But this wouldn’t be anything the Chinese government doesn’t already know. When eight-year-olds start getting lung cancer that can be attributed to air pollution, you’ve got a problem. When smog forces schools, roads, and airports to shut down because visibility is less than 50 yards, you’ve got a problem. When a study finds that severe pollution is slashing an average of five-and-a-half years from the life expectancy in northern China, you’ve got a problem.

Such a visible problem, literally, can lead to myopic responses in a frantic effort to make it appear that the problem is being confronted. For instance, last month the Chinese central government announced it will start publishing a list of its 10 worst — and best — cities for air pollution each month. But underneath all the haze, the seeds of a real transition are taking root. In July, the government said it would spend $275 billion through 2018 to reduce pollution levels around Beijing. Last month Shanghai released its Clean Air Action Plan in an effort to rapidly and substantially improve the air quality in China’s most populous city of nearly 24 million residents.

The Chinese government is not stupid and neither are China’s 1.35 billion residents — they can all see that pollution is a real problem. Earlier this month, Chinese communist party leaders convened a major plenary meeting to discuss economic reform, with over 200 party members gathering at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing, or third plenum. Plenums are significant because every member of the party must be present and this year, energy and environmental issues were on the agenda. Third plenary sessions have been met with high anticipation ever since the 11th Third Plenary Session in 1978 led to the structural reforms ushered in by Deng Xiaoping and the ensuing three decades of rapid growth that have turned China into the export-driven, world power it is today.

But that sustained economic boom also led to a bust for the environment. R. Edward Grumbine, a senior international scientist in the Key Lab of Biodiversity and Biogeography at Kunming Institute of Botany, wrote in Yale360 that as the 18th Plenum ended, China’s new President, Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Li Keqiang find their country at a critical crossroads.

“The economy has slowed, and China is confronting the cumulative consequences of its three-decade focus on economic expansion with little attention paid to mounting ecological and social costs,” Grumbine wrote. Read more