How Taiwan Cleaned Up Its Skies

For years, the island put industry, and the smog it brings, first. Here’s how it mopped up the mess.

blue skies in taiwan.
Beautiful blue skies over Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Oct. 28, 2010.

Photo by JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Caixin.

In Taipei a few days ago, the air was resplendent, with skies full of fine clouds, small and white, soft as cotton batting, like a goddess had dropped a basket of white flower buds.

Dusk turned the sky golden, and the colors of the clouds shifted until night enveloped the hours. The clouds became rimmed with blue, as a tulip behind a shadow. In this era, the sight was uploaded to screens and the gaze into one moment of the heavenly spheres was replicated into infinitude.

All reminded me of Beijing’s “Military Parade Blue” and “APEC Blue,” and of course the clear skies of the 2008 Olympic Games. But if I had to pick a time that I have the most nostalgia for, it would be the “lianghui” sessions of March 1990, the dual meetings of the legislature and the government’s main political advisory body. I remember one night being so chilly it was difficult to fall asleep. To contemplate the big interviews I had lined up for the next day, I went for a jog.

I began along Chang’an Avenue, passing through the street in front of Three Flavors Study, a bookstore, and saw the walls scarred by history on old hutong streets. The air was as silent as a shadow. I stared at the clouds, light as goose feathers, sitting like transparent beads in crystal clear water.

At the opening of the meetings in the morning, I glanced upon piles of snow along Chang’an Avenue, brightened by the luminous sunlight. The air was clear, and looking up at the sky, it was as though one’s eyes were directed at the deepest parts of the universe. I wrote to my daughter in Taipei and said, if you come to Beijing, you’ll know how blue and high the sky can be.

I do not know when Beijing lost that old sky.

To tell the truth, Taiwan at the time was under gloomy skies. After the 1970s, the export-oriented processing industry and the boom of the 1980s, which lasted through the 1990s, led to rampant environmental degradation. Taiwan was like a house torn down and emptied of its contents. The streets were clogged with cars and motorcycles, garbage was burned without sorting and the Tamsui River turned green. The air was abominable, and no one knew when it would end.

I remember conducting an interview near the river in those years, which was the source of drinking water for the people of Taipei. The surface of Tamsui River oozed with chemicals and residents often said the water had a metallic taste. If someone would have told me that the river could be saved, I wouldn’t have believed it.

At the time, there wasn’t much reporting on the pollution problem. In Taiwan, the first priority of the government was the growth of the state enterprise. Then came the large private companies and then, finally, small enterprises. As long as the petroleum, chemical, steel, mining, and other large companies received full latitude, the environment was an afterthought. The companies were protected by the politics of the time, and the public was powerless.

Public criticism gathered momentum, and slowly, policies were implemented to improve environmental compliance. The rivers were cleaned and heavy-polluting factories were shuttered. Two decades later, the environment in Taiwan was revitalized.

But how did Taiwan do this? A few years ago, I found myself chatting with friends, one of whom had a background with the environmental authorities. He said the source of change came from a shift in social expectations. Three years of severe pollution in an area generally required two years of policy attention.

The pressure exerted by grassroots conservation groups, and others concerned with the environment created popular awareness and led to the government delivering better services.

The formation of conservation groups had another advantage: It empowered other groups to initiate proposals for specific regulations. Like the Taipei city government’s adoption of an anti-littering campaign, the implementation of the household garbage sorting policy was only possible after a sea change in public attitudes on the environment. The average person became too embarrassed to neglect his duty to place recyclable and nonrecyclable items in separate bags, and the policy was easy to implement.

In the case of Taiwan, the participation of civil society was crucial to addressing its environmental crisis. Twenty years of nongovernmental organizations and the government working together resulted in the restoration of the environment. Without civil society, it would have been difficult for the government to achieve this alone.

I believe the true color of Beijing’s skies will return one day. It may be a long time from now, but it’s a process that has only just begun.