Well surprise, surprise: actually, the country with the dubious distinction of having the most polluted cities in the world in terms of air quality is India, not China. Yes, precisely--the world's largest democracy that supposedly focuses on "clean" services like business process outsourcing is numero uno globally. The World Health Organization stats speak for themselves after I chart the concentration of particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or smaller in the air of these cities (PM2.5) that are particularly dangerous since they can penetrate deeply into our lungs. More information from the 2014 report can be found here. The top 15 are:
incredible India although not in the manner intended. There's not even a contest going by this measure since Beijing, China ranks 77th worldwide among WHO monitoring stations (a PM2.5 of 56). As you can see, it's almost a lockout for the Indian subcontinent save for Qatar and Iran. Yes, Beijing PM2.5 peaks at unbelievably high levels with some regularity, but on average, particulates in these cities on the Indian subcontinent are much more plentiful. Statistically speaking, fixating on Chinese pollution by mentioning Beijing's spikes in PM2.5 is unwarranted. True, China is plenty polluted in many other ways--water, arable land and so forth--but on the measure it is most commonly criticized on, there are others doing much worse.
What, then, explains popular beliefs that China is the world's most polluted country? There is likely a political economy of statistics at play. The United States--a large democracy and service-oriented economy just like India--would of course prefer that a communist and authoritarian system be blamed for intolerably high pollution. CCP authorities hide how bad the situation is, etc. Hence the American Embassy in Beijing providing its own air quality stats to "embarrass" Chinese authorities over their environmental destruction:
Despite Beijing’s widespread reputation of having some of the most polluted air of any major city in the world, an examination of daily pollution figures collected from both cities suggests that New Delhi’s air is more laden with dangerous small particles of pollution, more often, than Beijing’s. Lately, a very bad air day in Beijing is about an average one in New Delhi...Aside from the questionable assertion that the Chinese government does not collect its own pollution figures, that Indian authorities do is also a convenient excuse:
The United States Embassy in Beijing posts on Twitter the readings of its air monitor, helping to spur awareness of the problem. The readings have more than 35,000 followers. The United States does not release similar readings from its New Delhi Embassy, saying the Indian government releases its own figures [my emphasis].
“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”Putting 2 and 2 together, the picture we arrive at is that American scaremongering about Beijing's air quality is undoubtedly responsible for part of this misplaced focus. In order to bash an ideological rival, it harps on pollution in a city whose pollution isn't nearly as bad as that of others--like chummy India whom it shares nuclear technology with. Petty American political points scoring, however, distracts focus from where the real problems lie. What to do with air pollution on the Indian subcontinent is a particularly urgent one for serious-minded people to tackle. If you are genuinely concerned about the environment, blindly listening to frivolous Americans will lead you astray. I won't even go into who exactly buys all those China-made products.
The political economy of pollution statistics it is.