Men detained for burning ‘low-quality’ coal. Is another heating crisis imminent?

Society & Culture

Everyone in China is feeling the cold, but some are feeling it more than others. On December 7, an environmental protection bureau in northern China announced (in Chinese) that it had punished 32 villagers for burning low-quality coal since November 26. Two of them, both surnamed Zhao, were detained by the police for ignoring official warnings the first time and violating the rules twice. The rest were reprimanded by local officials, who confiscated unused coal from their homes.

“Different departments of the local government will continue making a concerted effort to crack down on coal burning in our area,” Quyang County’s bureau in Baoding City of Hebei Province said in a statement published on its official WeChat account. It added that the ultimate goal is to “completely eliminate small-scale coal burning” by making sure “every single corner is under scrutiny.”

The news quickly drew fire from the internet, with many people empathizing with the households banned from burning coal to stay warm in the grip of a cold snap. “My home is in a village located in a city. Many people there can’t even afford coal. They basically burn everything they can to keep warm. But how can we blame them for polluting the air, since they are struggling to pay their 300-yuan rent?” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

In response to mounting criticism on social media, a spokesperson from the local government in Quyang County told (in Chinese) the Beijing Youth Daily on December 8 that the clampdown was in accordance with Baoding’s plan to curtail low-quality coal burning. The official also stressed that villagers were not banned from burning “all sorts of coal.” “They are encouraged to use clean coal. What we targeted is only coal of low quality,” he said.

The conflict between the government’s coal ban and poor households’ dependence on coal sounds strikingly familiar. Last year, in an attempt to curtail small-scale coal burning, which is deemed one of the biggest sources of air pollution in winter, Beijing implemented an aggressive plan to shift about 3 million households in northern China to natural gas or electric heating. But before seeing an significant improvement of air quality, the central government had to scale back its plan due to a heating crisis, which put millions of households with no access to cleaner fuel at great risk in extreme cold temperatures.