Breathless in Beijing

Killer pollution is a wake-up call for Beijing’s government. Feng Li/Getty

"Killer smog" has overtaken the Chinese capital. Authorities blamed the shockingly high pollution levels—the worst since records began four years ago—on not only vehicle exhaust but also dust from construction sites and a rare period of unusually cold weather, which prompted people to burn more coal to stay warm. One big problem is the rapid growth of car ownership in Beijing, from about 3 million during the 2008 Olympics to more than 5 million today.

In a bid to clean up the city's pollution for the 2008 Games, officials instituted stringent restrictions on car usage: on any given workday, based on the last digit of the license-plate numbers, half the registered vehicles had to stay off the roads. The pollution lifted significantly for the Games, and a lesser form of traffic restriction based on license-plate numbers now keeps a fifth of registered vehicles off the streets on workdays. Aspiring car owners also have to participate in a lottery, and have permission to buy a car only if their number is picked; this system is intended to restrict new car ownership to 200,000 annually.

But the rules haven't worked well enough to rein in pollution. "The car-ownership restrictions have been a kind of administrative measure that doesn't work effectively," says Prof. Hu Xingdou of the Beijing University of Technology. "We need to replace it with market regulation, and we also need to make Beijing's public transport more efficient." For example, after the traffic restrictions were adopted in 2008, many of Beijing's well-to-do simply went out and bought another car and equipped it with a license plate that ensured they could drive it on days when their other car was banned. Today, many Beijing residents are entering the car-ownership lottery on behalf of relatives or friends—and there's talk of a murky black market in ownership rights.

The killer pollution is a wake-up call for Beijing's government. The smog triggered so much respiratory distress and so many heart attacks that hospital emergency rooms have been jammed. "There have been people dying who might not have died if the air quality wasn't so awful," says Dr. Richard Saint Cyr of Beijing United Family Hospital.

So why can't Beijing just clamp down on car ownership? Shanghai, for example, has raised the cost of vehicle license plates to restrict the number of cars on the road. But in Beijing, authorities are leery of allowing only the relatively wealthy to have cars. It goes against the Communist Party's egalitarian roots. On top of that, as China's capital, Beijing has many levels of government, and its members all need official vehicles. Under party head Xi Jinping, the new leadership team has mandated that officials should avoid profligate use of limousines. "The government should clearly instruct local governments of all levels to restrict buying luxury vehicles," says Professor Hu.

Most analysts advocate raising the cost of parking in the center of Beijing, and charging a tax on people who drive in the city center during rush hours. But the capital's transportation headaches won't be resolved until public transport is improved. Meanwhile, residents may have to live with pollution from vehicle emissions. True, the killer smog itself has become a political issue, with growing complaints about government inaction. But dashing some Chinese residents' dreams of owning their own cars would likely trigger resentment against the government—as well as tension between the haves and have-nots.