“If you burn coal, see you in the detention center,” this new slogan is popping up across villages in northern China, just in time for the holidays.
As part of the Chinese government’s efforts at reducing the thick layers of smog which typically blanket Chinese cities during the freezing winter months, the burning of coal has been outlawed in a number of areas surrounding Beijing. However, before you start jumping for joy at the thought of a mask-free winter, you should know that this ban could mean that millions of people will face sub-zero temperatures this winter with nothing more to protect them than a coat.
Earlier this year, China began carrying out a massive campaign of replacing coal-powered heating with natural gas in millions of rural homes located mostly in northern Hebei province, near to the mega-cities of Beijing and Tianjin. Finally, in November, coal-burning bans were set in place in 18 cities and districts surrounding the Chinese capital, in a coordinated effort to ward off annual airpocalypses which plague the city each winter.
However, setbacks in laying gas pipelines and severe shortages of natural gas now mean that many Hebei residents could be set for a Jack Londonesque winter. Already, it’s been reported that students at a primary school in Baoding are being forced to have their classes outside in the sun because it’s too freezing cold inside the school without any heating.
Even worse, the gas shortage has become so severe that the Hebei Development and Reform Commission issued an orange alert on November 28th, ordering that all gas be reduced, rationed, and potentially even cut off depending upon priority. While residences, hospitals, and schools are all at the highest priority level, the severe rationing is still, in some cases, making it impossible to provide basic heating.
Though the Affiliated Hospital of Hebei University in Baoding city requires 20,000 cubic meters of gas to maintain operations, they have recently been rationed down to just 2,729 cubic meters. Concerned about the health and lives of patients, the hospital published an open letter last Friday airing its concerns.
And for those caught burning coal, the government is not bluffing about throwing offenders into a detainment center. Already there have been reports of detentions over violations as small as overworked construction workers lighting outdoor coal fires for warmth in Shanxi province. Coupled with the recent “safety crackdown” in Beijing which is driving tens of thousands of migrant workers from their homes and out onto the streets, Chinese netizens have begun to joke that Beijing is trying to speed up accomplishing its mission of eliminating poverty in China by 2020 by co-opting the cold.
The large-scale switch from coal to gas use has boosted China’s gas consumption by between 25% and 30%, driving Asian liquified natural gas prices to a 10-month high.
One Weibo user did some math: If a farmer burns coal during the winter, he will consume at least a ton of coal, which costs 800 yuan ($120). If he uses natural gas instead, it would cost him 2,500 yuan to 4,000 yuan. Another Weibo user from Hebei claimed that the gas heating in his house, which was just implemented this winter, costs 85 yuan a day, meaning that it would cost about 10,000 yuan ($1,500) to survive the winter. According to National Bureau of Statistics, the average person’s disposable income in China in the first half of 2017 was 12,932 yuan ($2,000), however, farmers only average 6,562 yuan ($992) in disposable income. This means that, even if they can get some natural gas, millions of families in China may not be able to afford to heat their homes this winter without help from the government.
As the coldest months of the year swiftly approaches, families can only shiver, wait, and hope.
By Alex Tang and Jad Ireifej
[Images via MingjingNews / Caixin]