Geoffrey York On Earth’s Most Polluted City

A Globe and Mail reporter talks about his queasy trip to Linfen, China.

Earlier this month the Globe and Mail published Geoffrey York’s report detailing the disastrous effects of the coal industry on Linfen, a city of 4.3 million that is “the toxic centre of China’s coal-producing heartland.” Not too long ago Linfen “called itself the ‘Modern Flower and Fruit Town,’” but now it chokes on coal dust, its soil covered with soot, its Buddhas blackened — “a ghost city, inhabited by people who loom out of the smog like spectral presences.” York, 46, joined the Globe and Mail in 1981, and has since served variously as a health policy reporter, Toronto city hall bureau chief, Ottawa parliamentary correspondent, Moscow bureau chief (1994-2002), and for the past five years as Beijing bureau chief.

Edward B. Colby: You describe Linfen as “an apocalyptic vision of clanking factories, spewing smokestacks, burning flames, suffocating fumes, slag heaps, constant haze and relentless dust.” When did you discover this hellish place, and is it really as bad as it sounds?

Geoffrey York: Linfen has been a local legend for many years. It really made its mark when the World Bank proclaimed it the most polluted city in the world. (In fact, 16 of the top 20 cities — or the bottom 20, more accurately — were in China.) And yes, it’s really as hellish as it sounds — especially in the winter when all the coal fires are burning.

EBC: Give us a short rundown of a day you spent reporting in Linfen. What was it like to make your way through the city’s streets? Did you cough or feel ill while you were there?

GY: We basically trolled the streets and highways for particularly bad examples of smog and soot. We braked for coking factories and coal-fired power plants. I also stopped in villages and farm fields to talk to the peasants, who saw some of the worst effects of the smog. And we checked out the temples, which were blackened by coal dust. By the end of the first 24 hours, all of us in my team (including our photographer and research assistant) were feeling queasy from the pollution.

EBC: Your piece outlines a paradox: coal has brought dramatically higher living standards for Linfen’s residents, yet degraded their health and environment at the same time. Did most of the people you talked to there feel that this trade-off was worth it? Or do they feel that they have no other choice?

GY: Most people in Linfen openly said they would rather have clean air, even at the cost of economic development. But they felt they had no choice. There’s a fatalism about it, just as there is among most of the “lao baixing” (the “old 100 names” — the ordinary people of China). They don’t feel they can change much in this elite-controlled society.

EBC: Are there lessons from the West’s industrial revolution that can be applied to Linfen, or China?

GY: If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Western industrial revolution, it’s this: the health of an entire city can be jeopardized by a relatively small handful of people chasing profits.

EBC: It’s really only been in the last year that the American media and public have accepted the seriousness of the global warming issue. How can the Chinese be convinced to do the same?

GY: That’s an excellent question. China and the U.S. are intrinsically linked on this issue. Until now, China has used the U.S. as an excuse for ignoring Kyoto, and the U.S. has used China as an excuse for the same thing. Maybe if one of them sees the light, the other might follow.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.