I arrived here on Oct. 19 and was greeted with this news: A combination of cold weather, lack of wind, coal-powered heating and farmers burning off post-harvest debris had created a perfect storm of pollution in the northeastern industrial city of Harbin, home to 10 million people. It was so bad that bus drivers were getting lost because the smog-enveloped roads would permit them to see only a few yards ahead. Harbin's official website reportedly warned that "cars with headlights turned on were moving no faster than pedestrians and honking frequently as drivers struggled to see traffic lights meters away."
The NASA Earth Observatory declared that some Harbin neighborhoods "experienced concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as high as 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter. For comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's air quality standards say PM2.5 should remain below 35 micrograms per cubic meter." This means that Harbin would need a 97 percent reduction in pollution in order to reach the maximum level our government would recommend.
NASA said Harbin hospitals reported "a 30 percent increase in admissions related to respiratory problems, and several Harbin pharmacies were sold out of pollution facemasks." American jazz singer Patti Austin canceled a concert in smoggy Beijing because of a "a severe asthma attack in combination with respiratory infection," according to her website.
It was no wonder that at a gathering of environmental activists in Shanghai I attended, organized by the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, the conversation was dominated by moms and dads talking about where in China to live, when to send their kids outdoors and what food and water to trust.
While swapping notes on China's latest "airpocalypse" a few days later, Hal Harvey, the American chief executive of Energy Innovation, who is working with China's government to try to get its air quality under control, asked a powerful question: "What if China meets every criteria of economic success except one: You can't live there."
Indeed, what good is it having all those sparkling new buildings if you're trapped inside them? What good is it if China's rapid growth has enabled 4 million people in Beijing to own cars but the traffic never moves? What good is it if China's per capita incomes have risen to a level affording tens of millions of once-poor peasants diets rich in milk and meat but they can't trust the labels? What good is all that rising GDP if there is no clean air to breathe?
China has built amazing hardware in 30 years -- modern cities, roads, airports, ports and telecoms -- bringing more people out of poverty faster than any country in the history of the world. The Chinese have much to be proud of. Every healthy economy, though, depends on a healthy environment. China will stall if President Xi Jinping and his government do not now build the software -- the institutionalized laws, courts and norms -- that can ensure that all this growth will not be undermined by an epidemic of despoiled land and dirty air.
That is easier said than done. China is a one-party system with multiple, competing interests inside. More enlightened party leaders in Beijing may declare, "We have to clean this up," but they still have to get the local bosses -- whose bonuses depend largely on generating economic growth -- "to assert environmental interests at least as strongly as economic interests," said Mr. Harvey.
That requires assigning real value, and giving real institutional power and weight, to those in the system who believe that it is just as important to protect the commons -- air, water, land, food safety -- as it is to grow the commons, that it is just as important to have decent ingredients in the pie as it is to grow the pie. "At the end of the day," said Mr. Harvey, "if the pie's not edible, it doesn't matter how big it is."
(We can thank our lucky stars that foresighted Americans, starting around 1970, built the institutions to protect our air and water. Next time you hear someone beat up on the Environmental Protection Agency, send them to Harbin for a week.)
Peggy Liu, the founder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, is working with Chinese consumers, producers and bureaucrats to define and implement a more sustainable "Chinese dream" that must be different from the American dream of a house, a car, a yard and a throwaway economy for all. I think building the institutional support for a sustainable Chinese dream is the most important thing President Xi can do.
"China doesn't have to have rivers that run bright red with industrial waste, or our lakes and beaches smothered by thick, green algae, or 18,000 dead virused pigs floating down the Huangpu River," Ms. Liu recently wrote. "We shouldn't have to check our air quality index app on our phone every day to determine whether we should let our children outside to play. There shouldn't be any more Chinese children who, when they go abroad for the first time, ask: 'Mommy, why is the sky so blue?' ...
"China can be better than this. China needs to carve our own unique way to a thriving life and stable community -- a path that is a sustainable path. If we don't do this soon, we will end up with a China Nightmare. And there's no escaping that a China Nightmare is a global nightmare."
Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.