Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues134Book ReviewsAHLERS, Anna L., Mette HALSKOV HA...

Book Reviews

AHLERS, Anna L., Mette HALSKOV HANSEN, and Rune SVARVERUD. 2020. The Great Smog of China: A Short Event History of Air Pollution. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nolwenn Salmon
p. 91-92

Full text

1The Great Smog of China: A Short Event History of Air Pollution is a concise summary of more than 2,000 years in the history of air pollution in China. For each of the five main periods identified, Anna Lisa Ahlers, Mette Halskov Hansen, and Rune Svarverud evaluate the levels and sources of air pollution and analyse the perception of this pollution. Though the term “pollution” did not appear until the early twentieth century in China, people long before then identified the risks or nuisances of polluted air. Thus, the authors use their own definition to trace back air pollution events: “Something that refers to both popularly perceived and scientifically recognized conditions of foul or poor quality air” (p. 123).

2This book is a clear digest of the general evolution of air pollution, based on the authors’ own research and previous scholarly work. For each period, the authors present the global situation of air pollution in China, the primary and secondary sources they rely on, and some selected air pollution incidents. They give the contextual information necessary for those unfamiliar with Chinese history. The political, economic, and social background of each period is then depicted briefly in order to explain the underlying reasons for the evolution of air pollution. But China is never considered in isolation. The Chinese situation is linked to global tendencies and sometimes compared to other countries. The analysis therefore includes local, regional, and global scales. The discrepancy between urban and rural areas is one important focus of the book that gives some interesting insights into a too often overlooked question.

3The first chapter recounts the situation in ancient China. Despite the scarcity of data, the authors draw an interesting picture of some situations where poor air quality was identified and perceived as such by contemporary society. According to the authors, the small amount of attention paid to air pollution at that time is probably related to ancient Chinese cosmology and epistemological tradition. The second chapter focuses on the early twentieth century, before the Chinese Communist Party came to power. The scholars depict both the increase in air pollution due to industrialisation and the growth of transportation, and the rise of concern within society. The air quality problem was put on the national agenda and entered public discourse but almost exclusively through the lens of indoor pollution. The importance of this issue was strongly related to the idea that pollution can harm the health of individuals and then weaken the nation in a period when building a strong nation was one of the main concerns.

4The third chapter, titled “The Ideologization of Smoke,” covers the period 1949-1978. The willingness of the Party to develop China as rapidly as possible and more generally the overall ideological background laid the groundwork for a harsh degradation of the urban and the rural environment. Pollution has long been depicted as a problem of capitalist countries, while conversely, in socialist countries, smoke has been seen as a sign of progress. Though the leadership was well aware that pollution could damage health, it was considered a secondary concern and suppressed in public debate. Participation in the Stockholm Summit in 1972 is therefore described as a milestone in the environmental history of China. China recognised the need to be concerned with environmental problems, but pollution was perceived as an unavoidable side effect of necessary industrial development. Though some regulations were issued, there were no immediate consequences in the regulation of air pollution.

5The period 1978-2008 described in the fourth chapter is associated with “an emerging scientific, political, and popular concern with air pollution” (p. 100). China’s reform and opening up period led to a dramatic increase in air pollution but also to a more scientific approach toward the issue and changes in the way the government perceived it. State media increasingly covered environmental problems, though often in vague terms, relying more on sensation than on scientific data. Petitions and protests emerged in the 1980s and increased significantly in the 1990s and 2000s. Several quite good laws were drafted to regulate air pollution and more general environmental degradation. More exchanges existed with foreign experts and policymakers. However, other economic and political factors often remained prioritised: the regulation of pollution should not hinder economic development. That’s why a big gap existed between laws and implementation. Some changes were nonetheless visible in the mid-2000s, for example, more importance being given to environmental protection in the evaluation of local cadres, and more resources allocated to air pollution control.

  • 1 “APEC Blue” refers to the emission reduction campaign directed in 2014 by the Chinese government du (...)

6The last chapter, “The Popularization of Air Pollution” (2008-2017), is characterised as an “air pollution shift” (p. 126). The Chinese population, and not only the urban middle class, became highly preoccupied by air pollution. In the three villages where the authors carried out their fieldwork in Zhejiang, residents worry about the health consequences of air pollution and protests have occurred against local polluters. This wide awareness has been fostered by the extensive disclosure of air quality data measured in urban areas and by the broad coverage of this issue in traditional media and social media. Four events have been selected for the role they have played in this process: the Beijing Olympics, the “airpocalypse,” the documentary Under the Dome, and “APEC Blue.”1 During this period, air pollution has been put on the top of the political agenda, and stricter policies have been implemented at both the national and local levels. Although the beginning of the period was characterised by a high level of openness in the release of information and in social media, air pollution became more and more sensitive after 2013 under the Xi administration. After the release of Under the Dome, coverage of environmental issues became more positive and government-orientated.

7The ability of the authors to put all this information in one small book is quite impressive. The counterpart is that the analysis devoted to the authors’ own fieldwork and new data is rather limited. Theoretical development is also scarce. For those already familiar with this topic, it could be a little disappointing in this regard. However, it is a perfect introduction for those interested in air pollution or in environmental issues more generally, and it is definitely meaningful reading for understanding the challenges that China is facing nowadays.

Top of page


1 “APEC Blue” refers to the emission reduction campaign directed in 2014 by the Chinese government during the APEC China summit, leading to a rare blue sky.

Top of page


Bibliographical reference

Nolwenn Salmon, “AHLERS, Anna L., Mette HALSKOV HANSEN, and Rune SVARVERUD. 2020. The Great Smog of China: A Short Event History of Air Pollution. New York: Columbia University Press.”China Perspectives, 134 | 2023, 91-92.

Electronic reference

Nolwenn Salmon, “AHLERS, Anna L., Mette HALSKOV HANSEN, and Rune SVARVERUD. 2020. The Great Smog of China: A Short Event History of Air Pollution. New York: Columbia University Press.”China Perspectives [Online], 134 | 2023, Online since 01 September 2023, connection on 06 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Nolwenn Salmon

Nolwenn Salmon is Assistant Professor of contemporary Chinese society at the University Lyon 3, IETT. 1C Avenue des Frères Lumière 69008 Lyon, France (

Top of page


The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search