September 17, 2019 / 4:02 AM / a month ago

Turning blue: China Inc holds breath as Beijing eyes smog-free skies for National Day

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - When the sun comes up in Beijing on Oct. 1, the Chinese government will aim to celebrate its 70th birthday under a brilliant blue sky - and factory bosses hope they can get through it without blanket closures.

FILE PHOTO: A tourist rests under an umbrella next to the installations set up on Tiananmen Square for the 70th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China on October 1, in Beijing, China August 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

During previous big events in a capital long plagued by festering pollution, the government has pulled out all the stops to guarantee air quality - seeding clouds for rain to wash the pollution away, restricting traffic, and shutting factories, shops and construction sites.    

Beijing will close building sites, curb fireworks and restrict fuel sales ahead of the National Day celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But government officials say the era of economically disruptive “one-size-fits-all” crackdowns is over, replaced by a more nuanced approach at a time when the country’s economy is creaking under the pressure of its trade war with the United States.

Though there is still time for a clampdown, executives at major heavy industrial firms believe sweeping closures are not yet on the agenda - as long as routine smog controls continue to do the job. An independent survey last week showed Beijing is on track to drop out from the list of the world’s top 200 most-polluted cities this year.

China’s biggest cement producer, China National Building Materials Corp (3323.HK), is one that hasn’t yet received any formal notification, and doesn’t expect special measures. 

“I think that if there are measures they won’t necessarily be connected with National Day,” Cui Xingtai, vice-president of the state-run company with facilities across the country, told Reuters during a recent interview. “In certain seasons, some places can introduce policies to alleviate the extent of air pollution.”

Elsewhere, officials with three small independent refineries in Shandong province, south of the capital, also told Reuters they were not anticipating stiffer cuts in production before October.

Provincial authorities do have the Oct. 1 anniversary in focus: Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, has launched an inspection of coal mines which it explicitly says is designed to prevent any accident ahead of the anniversary celebrations.

Meanwhile the province has imposed production curbs in Tangshan, China’s biggest steelmaking city, after a rise in smog earlier this month. 

“The Tangshan plan didn’t mention National Day but it’s clearly a big part of the motivation,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, senior energy analyst with Greenpeace. 

As Oct. 1 approaches, industry sources said production cuts could get tougher, especially in Tangshan and other cities close to Beijing, but comprehensive shutdowns were still unlikely.

The environment ministry said on Tuesday that mostly favorable weather would keep pollution in check over September, though concentrations of small floating particles known as PM2.5 were forecast to rise slightly in Beijing in the last 10 days of the month.

“There has been no official notice, though there’s still time,” said an industry consultant with ties to the Tangshan Iron and Steel Association who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to media. “Controls will definitely be stricter before National Day.”

Liu Qingxi, manager of a cement plant owned by Anhui Conch (600585.SS) in Tongling city, about 1,200 kilometers south of Beijing by road, told Reuters the company only expected to take action if air quality deteriorated significantly.

“We’ve not been told anything yet but if there are bad weather conditions they might ask us to stop production,” he said.

Reporting by David Stanway; Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu in Singapore, Muyu Xu and Min Zhang in Beijing; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell

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