Linfen's descent into coal-fired hell happened at a staggering pace. It began with the economic boom of the late 1990s and sped up after 2002, when domestic energy demand spiked, coal prices jumped, and the reins on private mine owners were loosened. At its low point, in 2004, Linfen had only 15 days out of 365 with an acceptable level of air pollution (two or above on the index). But now, Yang said, the cleanup was equally dramatic. The first step was to block coal trucks at the city's boundaries; suddenly there was much less coal dust. Next came heating: In 2006 alone, Linfen added enough gas-fired central heating to reach more than half of the city's 4.1 million people, and it knocked down 197 large coal-fired boilers and more than 600 smaller, family-size boilers. Now 85 percent of the city uses natural gas rather than coal for their heating. Perhaps most significant is the crackdown on dirty factories at the fringes of Linfen. SEPA forced 100 of the smaller, less efficient, often illegal ones to close last year, and this year it has given notice to nearly 150 more. The city's larger factories face new environmental standards, and the government is helping them to install sulfur scrubbers. With those that don't follow its directives, SEPA plays hardball-freezing their bank accounts, cutting off their electricity, and blocking all transportation to and from the facility. Flora and I heard rumors that, if needed, SEPA sometimes takes a final step: It sends in an explosives team and simply blows up the offending businesses. The result? In 2006, Linfen had 202 days above level two on the pollution index. By May of this year, it already had 87-22 days ahead of last year's pace. Recently the city of Urumqi, in far western China, overtook Linfen to become first on the country's list of most polluted cities. "When you come back next year, Linfen will be even cleaner," Yang promised.
On our final morning in Linfen, a government handler who had attached himself to us after the SEPA meeting-a man I knew by his English moniker, Sunshine-picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the city's top attraction, the Yao Temple. Linfen, known as Pingyang in ancient times, is considered one of China's first capitals, and its first ruler more than 4,000 years ago was Emperor Yao. We were in a black sedan with leather seats, the symbol of power in new China. "I am from the municipal government," the driver barked at the guards when we reached the temple, and we drove up and walked right through the door once reserved for the emperor. We saw some gongs and a well that apparently still had potable water, and then a monk fleeced me for $25 by blessing the largest stick of incense he could find, handing it to me, and asking me to pay for it as Sunshine nodded encouragingly. The day was sunny and the sky blue, and when the monk lit the eight-foot-long stick of incense for me, its smoke was the worst air pollution I'd experienced in Linfen.
Newly blessed, we walked next door to Yao Miao Square, a gaudy tourist trap and monument to the coal money that had built it. Completed in 2005, just in time to host the 2005 Miss Universal Bikini contest, the square's centerpiece was a 170-foot-tall gate (we were repeatedly told it was slightly taller than the Arc de Triomphe) that was filled with replicas representing the entirety of Chinese history: busts of Confucius, bronze miniatures of the Great Wall, statues of the heroes who invented gunpowder, paper and the compass. We rode an elevator to the roof and looked out over Linfen's forest of smokestacks, very few of which were spewing any smoke.
Flora and I descended, said good-bye to Sunshine, and hailed a taxi that would take us on an unsupervised tour of the industrial suburb of He Xi. There the buildings were stained brown-gray and the road was covered in layers of coal dust, but, as SEPA had claimed, the majority of the factories were shuttered. On the side of the road we met two workers who had just lost their jobs at a steel factory. They had earned $25 a week breaking down chunks of coal residue into smaller chunks, but a month ago the government shut the factory-and them-down. It was not an uplifting encounter, but in the context of China's massive pollution problem, the brute efficiency with which the city's economy had been turned upside down offered grounds for a sort of hope. Linfen, once the shortest plank in the Chinese barrel, was far better proof than Dongtan or Huangbaiyu that China's top-down, authoritarian development model-
an unyielding machine greatly more efficient than that of a messy democracy-could apply to ecological as well as economic progress. In the center of the former most polluted city in the world, it was evident that if China wills it, it has the power to impose environmentalism by fiat, to green the entire country at five times the speed the West ever could. All the rest of the world has to do is wait.
McKenzie Funk's last PopSci feature was about road-tripping in the tiny Smart car.