For a month in the summer of 2013, my lungs and I got our first taste of what could only be described as apocalyptically bad air pollution. I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Beijing amidst an air pollution crisis that was also serving as a backdrop for a struggle between environmentalists, scientists, and the Chinese government over how to acknowledge and respond to the pollution. At the time, the official government stance was to downplay pollution levels. Only a few years removed from the worst of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Chinese government was understandably loathe to undertake any policy shift that might slow down the nation’s economic engine, notwithstanding the clouds of toxic smog it was belching into the lungs of hundreds of millions of people.
Then came a few watershed moments for public consciousness: following an “air-apocalypse” in 2013, prominent internet personalities adopted air pollution as a cause célèbre. Filter buying and mask wearing became—for at least a narrow but affluent audience—a form of virtue signaling. In March 2014, the Chinese government shifted its stance from denial and underplaying to a veritable war footing: In March 2014, Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution.” In February 2015, journalist Chai Jing’s documentary Under the Dome, which saw her earnestly discussing her fears as a mother for how air pollution had impacted the health of her newborn daughter in utero, unleashed a pent-up outpouring of environmental anxiety from China’s urban upper-middle class.
By 2016, the government narrative had shifted from a prioritization of economic progress to a paradigm of building an “ecological civilization” by pursuing development through greening. Originally introduced by the previous Hu-Wen administrative, Chinese President Xi Jinping adopted and magnified “ecological civilization” as a signature policy. This ideology of development through greening, which promised to resolve any tension between economic growth and environmental limits, quickly reshaped urban policymaking. Beijing’s 2016-35 comprehensive plan, in pursuit of a city with “blue skies, white clouds, and green mountains,” called for a reduction of urban construction area by 160 square kilometers and the planting of 100,000,000 new trees across thousands of square kilometers of new parks and forests. Although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Beijing’s environmental policy became as much about demonstrating progress as about achieving it, with conspicuous greening becoming a key policy tool. The provision of water to 100,000,000 new trees poses a major logistical challenge in a city where the land is sinking because of severe depletion to groundwater. I argue that this is a key reason that non-organic “plants” and other green-colored things (such as dust control cloths blanketing demolition sites) have come to play a major role in urban greening alongside the army of new trees. Since 2013, Beijing has achieved dramatic improvements in air quality, making “blue skies and white clouds” a much more common sight in the city. As water-scarce Beijing seeks to dramatically increase the amount of green in its color palette, how have relationships between humans, non-humans, living, and non-living matter been reconfigured? What are the implications for the politics of urbanization and the environment?