Report: Air pollution, it’s so simple. Isn’t it?

All too often, visitors to Beijing fret and cluck their tongues at the air p0llution. While it certainly is awful, clearing the air is certainly no simple matter. This year, the most encouraging aspect of the whole siutation comes with the breath of fresh air from a simple local front page headline.

First published on Ministry of Tofu…

As you probably already know, the air here has been bad. Really bad. So bad that international news outlets picked up the story, perhaps most tellingly reporting the US Embassy’s air quality meter a few Saturdays ago tweeting readings above 700, when the scale was supposed to only go up to 500. Or The Economist’s photos of people practicing tai chi  in the haze.

As for myself, it’s been something of a learning curve roller coaster. My expectations were quite low to start with, based on experiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s (the last time a spent a few weeks at a time in Beijing in the winter). At that time, buildings just across the street would disappear in the haze. Then, during spot visits in 2008, with all the hoopla around cleaning up the air for the Olympiad, the long haul of raised expectations began. During those visits, the pure blue of the sky was truly amazing. It continued to amaze when I moved here last fall.

Indeed, even as the weather cooled and the community heating kicked on, there was nothing but blue skies. As folks globally told me to be careful of the air, I was sending out many an Instagram of Beijing’s blue. I just couldn’t get over it.

A few weeks ago, just west of GongTi Stadium
At the end of 2012, a weeks ago, just west of GongTi Stadium

Then “out of the blue” came the heavy-duty pollution. Ironic, no?

Just west of GongTi stadium, on infamous 700 Saturday
Just west of GongTi stadium, on infamous 700 Saturday (Jan. 12)

The reactions reported internationally mostly concerned the government’s response and the run on breathing masks and so on. I certainly did see a lot of that, but it wan’t the most shocking piece of news to me.For the most part, we Beijingers* seem to have just shrugged and gone on with life. The preparations for the New Year aren’t going to take care of themselves, so you have to go out and shop. And being cooped up at home has its limits, so there are always people out on the streets, in the parks and generally “out and about.”

For myself, I took a small, non-scientific poll of my colleagues. For the record, there’s only two foreigners in the company, me and a Singaporean, the rest are mostly either originally from Beijing or nearby places like Tianjin. The optimists thought that the situation is much improved from the past, so even though it was bad, the common reply was “It’s getting better!” They happily talk about how most of the factories have been moved farther away or how traffic controls (e.g. the odd-even license plate controls into downtown) are working. Still, their concerns are revealed in many other ways. For example, those with children regularly complain how troublesome the kids are at home. Why? “Well, when they can’t go out to play, they have no way to let out their energy.” The implications are obvious.

The pessimists seemed less willing to accept the situation and to want outside confirmation that the situation was unbearable. Many a conversation in the last few weeks would begin, “Is it like this in the US?” Or “What do you think of this? It’s terrible, isn’t it?!” What can you say, except “No,” and “Yes”? The complaining usually continues to cover the ways roads were being closed because visibility is so poor, and the extra trouble that causes. A sort of adding salt to the wound set of thinking.

Speaking of the office, we have something of our own air quality monitor. As we look west from the Second Ring Road, if we can see CCTV tower over on Third Ring Road, it’s All Clear. If we can make out some of the outlines in that neighborhood, it’s Take Care. If it’s just a blank wall of smog, we go to Stay Inside.

When you see CCTV Tower, it's All Clear
When you see CCTV Tower, it’s All Clear
The same view on 700 Saturday - Stay Inside!
The same view on 700 Saturday – Stay Inside!

On a more personal note, I mostly get around on foot and public transport. The haze is obviously ever present, and it’s effects always something of a concern.  In a complete turnaround, I now find myself wonder: “Where does it all come from?”

Firstly, there’s of course so many cars. Beijing’s traffic is infamous, and its contribution to the pollution probably goes under reported and until recently under recognized. New emissions regulations have been annouced for the expected 6 million cars in Beijing by 2015. More personally, there is nothing like traveling at 200 meters an hour to drive the point home – cars foul the air!

Travelling between these two bridges took 30 minutes.
Travelling between these two bridges took 30+ minutes.


Other sources of pollution are more “out of sight, out of mind.” Then, surprise! There it is.  As in this case, where I went to visit some local friends who live just north of the third ring road…

Beijing plant belches smoke, by ChinaGamerGuy

…And was stunned to find they live right next to a power plant. I am sure that when the plant was built, this seemed plenty far away. But now these poor folks are the front lines of the “human filters” that have lit up WeiBo these past weeks.

Sadly, the picture overall is hazy – not just the air. Put simply:  folks should have electricy and motor vehicles, but must we live like this?

To be very clear, I am not asking this judgementally. I originally come from the Rust Belt along the Ohio River. I know all too well about rivers burning from industrial waste. I’ve seen the pictures from Pittsburg and other steel towns in the US, and recently there was even badness from an inversion in my adopted home, Seattle.

The difference of course, is that those situations and incidents led to the Clean Air and Water act. One wonders how China might learn from the US experience and do better for it’s citizens. And in that area, perhaps the optimists are right.

Indeed, as you’ve no doubt inferred, I find none of the above surprsing. So, were there any surprises? Yes! This frontpage headline:

"Heavy Pollution Blatently Reveals China's Weakness"
“Heavy Pollution Blatently Reveals China’s Weakness”

It is very certainly most surprising to see a Beijing paper put out something this blatant. In many ways, its the most encouraging breath of fresh air that could be hoped for.



*I realize it may sound strange that I call myself a Beijinger, but why not? If folks who just moved to New York can be New Yorkers, then I figure I can be cut some slack.

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about china. Regards


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