SHANGHAI -- China's deteriorating air quality ought to be a powerful reason for the government to make pollution control its top priority.
Instead, the Chinese government still believes it's more important to help domestic automakers gain a technological edge on their foreign rivals.
And that could have tragic consequences since the government's electric vehicle strategy will do little or nothing to improve air quality.
In 2010, the government handpicked fuel cell vehicles, battery-powered EVs and plug-in hybrids for generous sales subsidies. Beijing believed creating a market for locally developed versions of those vehicle types was the best way to give China's domestic automakers an edge over their foreign rivals.
Under existing law, sales subsidies for fuel cell vehicles range up to 200,000 yuan ($32,800) per vehicle and for pure EVs 60,000 yuan. Plug-in hybrids qualify for subsidies up to 35,000 yuan.
By contrast, conventional hybrids don't qualify for subsidies because Chinese government officials don't consider them to be a game-changing technology.
The rationale for this policy is questionable. The government clearly underestimates the challenges that domestic companies face in developing EVs, plug-ins and fuel cell-powered vehicles.
Only two state-owned companies, SAIC Motor Corp. and Changan Automobile Co., have developed prototype fuel cells. And only BYD Co. and Jianghuai Automobile Co. have sold more than 1,000 EVs.
But China's EV strategy completely ignores the country's pollution crisis.
In the past, air pollution was mainly a seasonal problem in north China, where local residents burned coal for winter heating. But the country's fast-growing vehicle fleet has created a year-round smog problem in northern China and also begun to pollute central and eastern China.
When I went to Wuhan in October to attend an industry conference, I was shocked to see dense smog shrouding the central China city.
Returning to Shanghai, I was so glad to see clear skies. But, to my chagrin, pollution soon rose to toxic levels for several days throughout eastern China, including Shanghai.
Air pollution has become China's biggest health threat. About 350,000 to 500,000 people die each year from pollution-related ailments, noted former Chinese minister of health Chen Zhu in an article published in The Lancet, the medical journal.
Chen's estimate is actually lower than The Lancet's own estimate. In 2012, the journal, based in the United Kingdom, estimated that 1.2 million people died prematurely in 2010.
Over the next few years, vehicle sales in China are expected to grow 10 percent annually. Given the grave risk that vehicle exhaust poses to society, Beijing should make pollution control an urgent priority.
The government should subsidize conventional hybrids, which are cheaper and more practical than EVs or plug-ins. It should enact stricter emission standards for gasoline-powered vehicles. And it should consider the potential benefits of clean diesels.
But this will be possible only if Beijing gives up its misguided quest for technological dominance.
You can reach Yang Jian at firstname.lastname@example.org