Time for Beijing to clear the air
Even if they seem too little too late, the emergency measures Beijing is planning to control worsening air pollution indicate some recognition of an inescapable fact - rapid and unrestrained growth will exact high and rising environmental and health costs. The city's notorious air pollution should not have climbed to a level 40 times worse than the World Health Organisation's "safe" level this month. But the Chinese capital decided to act against the worst polluters - factory and car owners - only after the smog became visually too obvious to ignore.
Triggering fear and outrage, the 2.5-micrometres particulate matter reading spiked off the scale to 886. The threat to health leapt in parallel, because such pollutants can easily lodge deep in the lungs to cause asthma, bronchitis and cancer.
More and more Chinese are clearly justified in asking if development at such a breakneck speed is worth the cost to health. They have become even more resentful towards those who have the means to filter the air in their homes and offices, and to consume only produce grown on protected farms.
This political question might well overshadow other pressing national issues if left to fester. Beijing is not the only Chinese city that pollution envelops frequently. It is only 75th among 149 urban areas worst affected. The authorities had to scrap some industrial projects, for example, in Qidong and Shifang last year, when protests turned ugly.
The state media have openly and even critically focused on the big "Beijing blackout" this time, when previously they under-reported the problem. Highlighting public concern is a good start, but the overall situation is so serious it calls for a reconsideration of the intensity of the country's catch-up game.
Though long overdue, China has to now bring development into a sustainable balance with the environment. It would have been wiser for Beijing to have safeguarded its environment when it embarked on its modernisation decades ago, but it is not too late to switch to responsible growth that does not despoil the countryside and foul the air in cities.
China is not alone. Other Asian nations too should not wait till things turn dire before acting. Environmental sustainability must be "at the heart of all long-term development plans", noted Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Like China, his country has been plagued by pollution problems that afflict its own citizens and at times spill over to its neighbours too. It should work with its Asean friends to ensure that their much repeated collective pledges to protect the living environment are not just so much hot air.