Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIJING — China’s capital region remained swathed Monday in a cloud of choking smog, prompting a rise in hospital visits and sales of indoor air purifiers and reports of rare industry shutdowns.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection on Sunday dispatched inspection teams to fine and shut down polluting industries in the region, and there were reports that regulators had idled a major concrete kiln and other factories outside Beijing.

But the shutdowns did little to end a four-day bout of heavy particulate smog. Nor are they likely to ameliorate skepticism among residents and outside experts about China’s commitment to environmental protection.

Alex Wang, who teaches law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said China had extensive environmental laws on the books and an increasingly sophisticated ability to monitor sources of smog.

“The problem is not a lack of knowledge about pollution sources,” said Wang, who previously headed the Beijing office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Rather, the problem is that environmental regulators lack sufficient authority to deter polluters from violating the law.”

Beijing’s 5 million vehicles are an increasing contributor to the city’s air pollution, but the biggest sources are thought to be industries, smelters and utilities outside the city that use coal as a power source.

On Beijing’s worst days, the smell of coal soot hangs heavy in the air. At 6 p.m. Monday, the air monitor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that levels of so-called PM 2.5 contaminants — fine particles produced by coal burning that pose the worst risk to human health — had topped 400 micrograms per cubic meter. That’s about 16 times higher than the World Health Organization deems safe, and about five times higher than recent soot levels in Los Angeles.

Beijing’s recent smog bout started more than a week ago and intensified Friday, when authorities issued a code orange alert, reserved for heavy smog that lasts for at least three consecutive days. It was the first time authorities had issued such an alert since they established the color-code system — with red reserved for the absolute worst conditions — last October.

While Beijing residents are accustomed to periods of filthy air every winter, the latest pall is testing the patience of many in the city.

“Beijing’s air is so bad,” one Beijing blogger, Ming Hui, wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “What are the relevant government departments doing? … Should enterprises and businesses that emit pollutants buy air purifiers for the people?”

According to a report Sunday in the Beijing Morning Post, the number of people going to the respiratory wards of various hospitals in the city has increased 20 percent to 50 percent since Friday. On the street Monday, pedestrians outfitted in masks were far more visible than the week before, although a large number — mainly men — wore no protection and could be seen enjoying the outdoors by lighting up cigarettes.

Health-minded Beijingers have good reason to be skeptical about continuing official pledges to protect their lungs. While China has shown that it can clamp down on emissions — it did during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — the government’s ambitious industrial growth targets, powered by the world’s largest consumption of coal, trump its environmental goals. And far too often, Wang and other experts say, the government doesn’t want to risk blowback from industries or even citizens by enforcing environmental laws.

Photo: KiRin Chen via Flickr

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.