LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
2017 was the year China got serious about fighting pollution. It's a huge problem there, the result of decades of phenomenal economic growth and development. You've seen pictures of murky skies at midday thick with smoke and soot, Chinese pedestrians venturing out in masks. But the Chinese government is now cracking down on polluters. And NPR's Shanghai correspondent, Rob Schmitz, has been paying attention.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: I began hearing about this in the summer when a foreign businessman that I know in the plastics industry told me that his entire supply chain here in China had suddenly been just shut down. The factories that make his product, his company exports were all located in one city in northern China. And he told me environmental inspectors sent from Beijing had just come to the city, a city of, like, 5 million people, and shut down most of the city's factories by turning off entire sections of the electrical grid.
And these factories were shut down for inspections for an entire month. And when he went up there to see what was going on, he said it was the first time he had ever seen a blue sky over the city and stars at night because, for the first time, there was no air pollution. I looked into this further, and I realized this was not an isolated case. This year, China's government has sent inspection teams to cities throughout the country. And they were doing the same thing wherever they went, shutting down factories, inspecting them. And many of these factories have now been closed permanently because they weren't following environmental laws.
WERTHEIMER: Does China have new environmental laws, or were these laws always on the books and never enforced? What happened?
SCHMITZ: Well, this is a case of China's government finally implementing its own laws. In the past, they'd only bother to enforce environmental laws when Beijing was hosting the Olympics or a high-profile international summit was in town. But in the past year, we've seen a deliberate, systematic strategy by China's government to rein in polluters and to put in place a better system of real-time environmental monitoring and enforcement. You know, in the process, tens of thousands of factories have been shut down. And the fines that many businesses have to pay are so much that many factories are choosing to just call it quits.
WERTHEIMER: Why is this happening now?
SCHMITZ: You know, well, part of this is China wanting to be seen as a proper global power by the rest of the world. China's taking a leadership role globally with climate change as the U.S. steps down from its role. And it's also making record investments in solar, wind. And it's also got this new carbon trading scheme. But when it comes to pollution - when Xi Jinping became China's leader, the state of China's environment had never been worse. Air pollution was closing down airports, highways, schools. And water and soil pollution were at toxic and really unsustainable levels. And all of this was really bothering China's growing middle class. So in essence, the environment had become a stability issue for China's Communist Party and the elite who had profited from China's rise. I spoke to environmental lawyer Peter Corne about this. And here's what he had to say.
PETER CORNE: Let's face it. The people who made a lot of money big time from dirty, private enterprises - they made their money, got the kids educated overseas. And they're following them, and they're saying goodbye to China. So they're leaving all the poor, common people to deal with the mess and who'll die from cancer. I mean, that's not a good message at all. This campaign, a lot of it, is to show people the government cares, and it wants to do something about their well-being.
WERTHEIMER: So this big environmental cleanup is coming late. It sounds like it's a fairly draconian solution to China's problems. But is it working?
SCHMITZ: Yeah, it is. You know, I've lived here in Shanghai for eight years. And while it's still very smoggy, this year has been less so than previous years. Same goes for Beijing, which has more notoriously bad air. Still, you know, that doesn't mean that China's work is done. The air quality here and in other Chinese cities is still largely terrible. And so is the state of China's waterways and soil. So there's still a lot of work to be done. But when - someday when historians look back at the rise of China, they're going to point to the year 2017 as the year when China's government started getting serious about cleaning up its own environment.
WERTHEIMER: That's Rob Schmitz, NPR's Shanghai correspondent. Thank you very much, Rob.
SCHMITZ: Thanks, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.