The challenge of environmental protection policies in China: the city of Xi’an case study

Following the visit of French Prime Minister Jean-Yves le Drian to Beijing from 24 to 26 November, the major international and regional issues were discussed with the Chinese interlocutors. These discussions helped advancing the partnerships in the fields of civil nuclear and aeronautics, and cooperation in promising sectors such as agri-food, green finance, sustainable urban development, health, the economics of aging and tourism. They discussed the possible synergies between the French plan “Industry of the future” and the Chinese policy “China Manufacturing 2025”.

So, what are the health problems in China? What are and should be the necessary measures to undertake in the big cities? Here, we will study the specific case of the city of Xi’an.

Located in central China, Xi’an (西安, or “Western Peace”) is the capital of Shaanxi province. Xi’an is known as the starting point of the Silk Road and is also a focal point of China’s One’s Belt. Its skilled workforce and its many research centers are attracting more and more Chinese and foreign investors: in 2013, Xi’an has captured more than two-thirds of FDI invested in the province.

The economy took off from Xi’an at the millennium, GDP doubled between 2001 and 2006 and again between 2006 and 2010. Xi’an’s economy has long been driven by investment in aeronautics (the MA60 and Comac ARJ21 have been designed and manufactured in Xi’an), mechanical industries, electric, electronics, chemical, bio-medical and military, as well as in the textile sector.

The city of Xi’an has everything it takes to be the Chinese city of sustainable development tomorrow. The factories of large foreign companies have the opportunity to establish themselves in this city, to create their products and export throughout China.

One of the biggest environmental problem: the air pollution

Xi’an has one of the worst air quality in the world. Pollution kills 1.6 million people every year in China, more than 4000 a day, which corresponds to 1 of 6 premature death in the country. What are its main origin? Firstly, the vehicle pollution releases nitrogen dioxide and fine particles (for diesel engines). But also, heating during the winter, construction sites and the industry, which operate largely on coal.

As a developing country, China started its pollution control and ecological protection when its GDP per capita was lower than $300. Chinese policies have grown and became more sophisticated and more integrated, to carry out its long-term development and growth. Despite these shifts, the policy improvements are failing to keep pace with the growth of the economic activity. Up to now, China was still unable to fully contain the trend of a deteriorating environment with an economy growing at such a high speed.

Along with the progress of the globalization and upgrade of industrial construction, some heavy pollution industries, such as steal, chemical and cement, are continuously transferred from abroad to China, from eastern region to central and western regions. It is necessary to take integrated measures and actions to meet the great challenges, such as constructing a more efficient policy framework, continuing the adjustment of economic structure, implementing the pollution prevention and ecological conservation, and a broader international cooperation and public participation. The only way to turn the deteriorating trend in China around is to transform economic growth pattern and to implement sustainable development strategy.

Chinese researchers compared data on air pollution and death rates in Xi’an from 2004 to 2008. This is the city where in 2006, the World Health Organization reported as having the second worst air pollution in Asia, which means the second worst in the world. In much more recent studies in 2013, It has been reported that Xi’an has the fifth worst air pollution in China.

Now let’s talk about those dangerous air particles called “PM”. PM means “Particulate Matter” floating around in the air, most of which you can’t see. These are the particles that are polluting and dangerous for public health. So, what does “PM2.5” mean? 2.5 micrometers are in fact the size of these particles, they can be toxic organic compounds, heavy metals, etc… and can come from driving automobiles mainly, burning plants, smelting … The PM2.5 are the most dangerous for health, compared to the PM10 particles which are bigger and cause less severe health effects. The PM2.5 is the one that goes the further into the lungs and cause severe lung or heart diseases.

In Xi’an, most of Chinese people have this smartphone application named “Air quality China”, this application shows the daily AQI (Air Quality Index) in all the cities of China. The AQI also gives you information about what health problems you will possibly experience. When the Air quality reaches 100 or 150, everyone starts wearing a mask with a PM2.5 filter, to make sure they won’t breathe this polluted air. Unfortunately, the mask system only filters up to 95% of the PM 2.5.

The World Health Organization said that the air in Xi’an is, on average, 9-10 times more polluted than the median PM 2.5 levels of the two most polluted cities in the 112 city US study (Rubidoux, CA and Los Angeles, CA).

China’s air pollution affects all the world

The pollution is getting really important and doesn’t only affect Chinese people. It’s also part of the major conflicts between Korea and China: the winds push the Chinese polluted air containing fine particles and develop a giant cloud over South Korea and particularly in Seoul.

But the pollution problem in China does not only affect its neighbors, the impact of China’s pollution is global. For some time now, it was assumed that this growing pollution impacts the climate and cyclonic activity in the Pacific. Asian pollution has strengthened the cyclones in winter 2014, increasing precipitation by 7%. On a global scale, all of the developing cyclones at middle latitudes would have been affected by pollution.

The growing water pollution problems in Xi’an

Of course, Xi’an faces many other issues, of which the water pollution is really significant. Two main factors involved in water resource problems are the amount and the quality of water available. Along with economic development in China there are the serious problems of increase in water demand and of the water pollution, especially in big cities such as Xi’an. As a result, measures to protect water resources are increasingly attracting attention. The city of Xi’an is located in the watershed, or basin, of the Weihe River, a large tributary of the Yellow River.

In recent years, the city’s GDP has increased rapidly. As GDP grew, the demand for water by industry also increased rapidly, as did the water demand of the residential sector, which rose in tandem with increases in people’s incomes and changes in lifestyle.

This has led to two severe problems, dropping groundwater levels and polluted surface water. In 2006, for instance, the decrease amount of groundwater in the city was over 100 million tons. Land subsidence and fissures occurring in both urban and rural areas as a result have become threats to the safety of residents and infrastructure. Under this situation, it is clear that effective measures must be taken to improve Xi’an’s water environment in order to adequately satisfy the demand for water, while protecting groundwater resources and controlling land subsidence.

Policies and measures taken by the local government against environmental problems

The city of Xi’an, Shaanxi province, implemented five measures to combat air pollution. The results are encouraging, the city put great efforts into industry adjustment by reforming and removing eight companies and shutting down 130 companies that caused air pollution. It also pushed forward the project of replacing coal with gas and electricity, which reduced the consumption of coal by 1.6 million tons compared with 2013.

Xi’an is becoming more and more involved in the protection of its environment. For example, Xi’an took steps in car controlling. It abandoned 560 000 old cars, launched and adjusted 55 bus lines, added 1155 buses and 8000 public bicycles, and strengthened checkups and supervision.

To control dust, strict regulations were carried out in construction sites. The city bought 200 sprinklers to clean roads regularly and established a dust prevention company. The management system was also set up to regulate the burning of straw, rubbish and leaves. The city checked 4100 restaurants and 3400 barbecue stalls and urged them to use clean energy and install oil fume purifying devices.

To carry out ecological projects, such as the Protection of Qinling Mountains Ecology, the city of Xi’an is working to build itself into a national forest city and national garden city. In 2013, newly-added green space, wetland and ecological water area reached 4.5 million square meters, 4 million sq. m and 1.7 million sq. m, respectively. Through the above measures, the number of days with a good air quality reached 80 in the first half-year of 2014, 23 days more than 2013.

Several other measures had been taken because of the air pollution made by the electricity production. The first law forbidding gasoline motorcycles/scooters went into effect in 1985 in Beijing.  Since then about 150 municipalities (including Xi’an) have adopted laws called “Jin Mo orders”.  The main justification for the orders is that gasoline motorcycles contribute more pollutants to the atmosphere than automobiles, due to no environment controls on the motorcycle engines. When the laws went into effect, many gasoline motorcycle companies in Xi’an went out of business. Which then gave birth to a new industry: the manufacture and sale of electrical vehicles.

Getting rid of smog, the pollution cloud being composed largely of fine particles, becomes a priority in China. Thus, the apparition of some innovative inventions as “anti-fine particles cannon”, which first appeared on the streets of Xi’an. While treating the problem at the source would be more effective on the long term, some look for solutions in the short term against pollution in China. So, cannons mounted on trucks, projects steam at high pressure into the air to break down the floating particles such as dust, in the city of Xi’an.

The gun, connected to a tank with a capacity of 10 tons of water, is capable of spraying water as a fog at a distance of over 120 meters horizontally and 70 meters in the vertical. It also sprays a light scent in the air to cover the foul smells of pollution. It was enough for skeptics to compare the machine to a “single giant perfume spray.”

Regarding the water problem, Xi’an is taking effective measures to better protect and improve its environment both for local residents and tourists. As part of the effort, local government decided to install special equipment to monitor and control those enterprises creating water-polluting materials during their production. The project, named « Network for Monitor and Control Pollution Sources », began in September, 2015.

Other measures, such as installing special electricity meters used for wastewater treatment equipment and checking for additives used for wastewater treatment, will also be adopted to see if factories are treating waste water properly, the local government has decided to close 34 paper-making factories before September 2015 since they produce a large amount of polluted water.

The effort is aimed at enhancing the control of polluted water draining into the rivers around the city and improving the quality of the surface water.


Reviewing the evolution of China’s policy, many experiences and lessons for policy-making on environment and development issues allow us to give an accurate estimation of the future. The reactive approaches and instruments of the past will not be sufficient to address the coming challenges China faces. Despite unremitting efforts for many years, the state of the environment and development in China is transiting gradually. However, with large amounts of pollutant discharge nationwide, pollution remains rather serious. Also, ecological deterioration is aggravated and still not under effective control. The problem has grown to become a key factor harming public health and restricting economic growth and social stabilization. On the other hand, if GDP growth continues at near 8% in the short to medium-term future, urbanization will continue and possible even accelerate, and industrialization will continue to move towards more highly transformed products, the scope and dimensions of the environmental agenda will become more complex.

In light of the severe environmental situation and the major weaknesses currently found in China’s environmental policy system, it is necessary and very important to take integrated measures and actions to meet the great challenges and complex issues in its main big cities. Firstly, Xi’an should stick to the basic state policy of environmental protection and further promote the strategy of sustainable development, while constructing a more efficient policy framework on environmental protection and development. Secondly, further promotion of the adjustment of economic structure should continue, including: strategic adjustment to cut the industries with high depletion resources and serious pollutant emissions, policy reformation of natural resources to improve the integrated efficiency, and encouraging the development of environmental industry to provide technological support for environmental protection. Thirdly, to implement principles emphasizing both pollution prevention and ecological conservation, Xi’an need to strengthen its investment and policies innovation. Fourthly, it is very important to enforce the capacity for sustainable development, especially not only insisting on the mechanism of environmental protection wherein governments play the dominant role, but also strengthening the market promotion and public participation.

By Maëlle Texier, 2017-2018 year group of M2 IESCI at the University of Angers


Air pollution in Xi’an:

Water pollution in Xi’an:

Other sources:

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