I never really liked this kind of journalism. Leaning far too heavily on snap impressions gleaned from a day or two of travel, this unnamed correspondent makes mistakes that could easily have been avoided with some basic background research.
I'm not sure what day the reporter visited the city, but Kunming's air quality is downright pristine when compared to other inland Chinese cities like Xi'an or Wuhan. In fact, Kunming ranked 4th out of the 31 major cities with at least 351 days of "fairly good" air quality by China's National Bureau of Statistics.* A major factor behind this ranking is the relative absence of heavy industry. Yunnan doesn't have a ton of mega-manufacturers. Those that are present, like Kunming Iron & Steel Company (abbreviated in Chinese as Kungang), tend to operate a safe distance from Kunming. In Kungang's case, 20 miles (32 km) away. The larger factories closer to Kunming - like cigarette manufacturing - are generally less heavily polluting. Meanwhile car ownership, while increasing rapidly, still lags far behind the more industrialized centers to the east. The city government has taken at least a symbolic interest in addressing auto emissions by holding monthly car-free days. They're also planting a heck of a lot of trees.
Similarly, the reporter's "affluence" argument is a bit problematic. To begin with, the evidence is shaky. Smog is clearly not what it's made out to be. And a smattering of high-end retail hardly counts as anything besides a convenient anecdote. I'm no economist but if you look at GDP per capita Kunming (at ¥7,833, US$1,141) doesn't hold up so well when compared to other cities like Shanghai (¥57,310, US$8,346), Chengdu (¥20,625, US$3,004), or even Nanning (¥16,121, US$2,348). Even discussing affluence in broad general terms can obscure the fact that while a small but growing number do sport Gucci bags and drive BMWs, the vast majority survive on less than US$200 per month.
I'm not out to poo-poo travel writing. Last September The New York Times travel section ran a terrific piece on Kunming (travel.nytimes.com/[...] Unfortunately, this reporter just didn't do his or her homework.
*The figures are from 2004, the last year I could locate specific numbers. In 2006, Kunming was listed as Class II, meaning it had "fairly good" air quality. Only two cities in 2006 - Lhasa and Haikou (the provincial capital of Hainan) - were listed as Class I, meaning they had "excellent" air quality. Most of the other cities in the Class II category were either located directly on the shore or had far smaller populations than Kunming.
2004 data: www.allcountries.org/[...]
2006 data: www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/189327.htm