The world's most polluted city is a funny place to find hope for China's ecological future, but that's where I found it. Linfen, an ancient Chinese capital in the middle of what is now the country's richest coal province, Shanxi, was number one on China's list of most polluted cities in 2004, 2005 and 2006. It topped the global roster put out in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental NGO, beating out such toxic notables as Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Dzerzhinsk, Russia (site of a Cold Warâ€era chemical-weapons plant). Linfen became infamous overnight, a mandatory stop for newspaper correspondents. "It's an apocalyptic vision of clanking factories, spewing smokestacks, burning flames, suffocating fumes, slag heaps, constant haze and relentless dust," wrote Geoffrey York in Canada's Globe and Mail in February.
By reputation, Linfen is the only place in China where you can walk down the hall of your hotel and actually see the air. Flora and I arrived carrying special Japanese face masks and wardrobes in which the only pieces of white clothing were my tube socks.
What we hadn't prepared for was the possibility that Linfen would be sunny and pleasant, freshened by a spring breeze rushing through a basin that often traps in air pollution. Shanxi Province has 270 billion tons of proven coal reserves, and coal is everywhere-piled in back alleys, sold in burnable cubes from the back of mopeds, used to pop the popcorn sold by street-side vendors. Coal-fired power plants and aluminum and steel smelters surround the city. Part of the improvement was the season; the worst pollution is in winter, when homes burn coal for warmth and the air is dead calm. But every resident we talked to said it wasn't just the weather, that Linfen was actually becoming cleaner. We visited the local SEPA office to find out why. The windowsills were covered with dust, the walls stained gray from soot, but in the building's entryway was an LCD screen displaying the air-pollution index-today was a passable two on a scale of five. Yang Zhaofeng, the bureau's deputy director, was summoned, and we sat with him and a crowd of underlings in a room ringed with leather chairs. Yang's explanation of Linfen's rebirth was simple: "After we found out we were number one in pollution, we did all we could to take off the dunce cap."
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