Beijing’s smog is bad. So is the West’s obsession with it.
It’s a new year, and one of my resolutions is to start a Medium to continue my blog. So here we go. Given how many friends from America and Chile have asked about it, this first post is about what life is like under Beijing’s winter smog cloud. The short answer: not as bad as you think. We get nonstop news about Beijing smog in the West. This excessive and often superficial coverage distorts our views of Chinese life.
Yes, air pollution here is a huge problem. The sky looks ugly on bad days. It causes health problems for old people and developmental problems for children, and over the long term can cause cancer. I don’t want to underestimate the suffering that many people go through, especially those who cannot afford masks or filters. But Beijing is not always the gray dystopia you see on the news. Today we actually had blue skies. In summer and autumn, there are few bad days at all. And even the worse Beijing smog day is far less disruptive than, say, a northeastern US snowstorm. (Barring the obvious difference that smog is self-inflicted.)
When I first moved to Beijing, I would often get headaches, and feel fatigued or like I had a cold. These symptoms would disappear when I traveled to Hong Kong or Changsha for the weekend. I realized the problem was the air, so I started checking air quality measurements, bought masks, and got an air filter.
Foreigners in Beijing rely on the US embassy’s air pollution measurements. This Air Quality Index (AQI) is based on the amount of pollutants in the air, including PM2.5. Below 100 is relatively normal and healthy. Above 300 is hazardous. Today is about 160, officially “unhealthy”. 100 is my limit for running outside. Above 200, I wear a mask with a mini-filter whenever I take long walks outside. I also bought a DIY fan filter sold by SmartAir, a clean air startup founded by a group of expats in Beijing. Many Beijingers buy filters that cost thousands of renminbi. SmartAir realized that solutions that are just as effective really only require a fan and a low-cost filter. So they sell theirs for about 200 RMB, around 40 USD. With my Smartair in my room and my 3M mask for walking outside, I hardly notice bad smog days anymore.
The perennial coverage of Beijing smog in Western news often falls dangerously close to a sub-genre of entertainment I call “weird China news.” There are actually many good articles about China in Western newspapers. But those that make it to the front pages, especially back home in Chile, often highlight the absurd. The China of Western newspapers’ is a place where giant Trump chicken statues dot city squares, people devour rabbit heads, traffic jams last for weeks, where there is an ongoing “toilet revolution,” and, of course, the sky is always gray. Admittedly, some weird China news involves things that are quite cool, like the Harbin ice city. These things are all true, but they are anecdotal in such a huge country. Articles on China too often feel like dispatches from Marco Polo on a strange land.
New Delhi has smog that, by many measures, is just as bad as Beijing’s. But Google “New Delhi Smog” and you get 400,000 results. Google “Beijing Smog” and you get 15 million.
Beijing’s smog crisis is not that unique, nor that unprecedented. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, I had my fair share of bad air days, some of them almost as bad as in Beijing. It was not uncommon for the government to stop us from doing sports at school on bad air days.
American speakers at the Sanya Forum—a gathering for Chinese and international leaders in Hainan last month—noted that Los Angeles air in the 1970s was as bad as Beijing’s today. Coincidentally, I just saw an episode of The Crown that deals with the Great London “Fog” of 1952, another infamous case of Western smog. Good government regulations and private sector efforts went a long way to cleaning the air in Europe and America over the next few decades. I suspect Beijing’s path will not be much different. Rather than simply pointing fingers at China, perhaps exploring how the West itself overcame smog could be a good take for less superficial reporting.
Over the weekend, it was actually below 100 for three days, and I went for a nice run through the hutongs.
Western coverage of China’s smog crisis often overlooks China’s awareness of its mistakes and efforts to fix the issue. I attended the Sanya Forum in sunny Hainan right before the big smog cloud hit Beijing. The Forum’s keynote speaker? Al Gore. Chinese speakers also constantly highlighted pollution and environmental sustainability. Most of the forum was in Chinese, so this was not just a PR stunt for Western audiences.
China’s current five-year plan (a document for new government policy somewhat akin to a new Western administration’s campaign platform) has 32 major policy proposals. 6 of these are directly linked to climate change or pollution, including electric car promotion, reforestation, and carbon emissions permits. Compare this to the US Republican Party’s victorious 2016 platform, which calls policies against climate change “the triumph of extremism over common sense”.
I know what you might be thinking. Of course what the Chinese government says sounds good. But it is a crony-capitalist, authoritarian, one-party regime. How can we trust it? I don’t really trust it either. I consider the lack of real democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of association to be severe problems. I’ll be the first to say that Chile’s government should be more outspoken about human rights in China. (Medium is blocked in China anyways, so I guess I can say whatever I want). But China’s environmental awareness goes far beyond government lip service.
Public transport in China is widespread compared to Chile or the US, with huge investments in subways and bullet trains. Chinese cities are an urban mess, with too many highways and lifeless apartment blocks, but parks are well maintained and numerous even in third tier cities, providing green havens to hundreds of millions of people. Chinese companies are also responding to the climate crisis: several startups, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, are promoting revolutionary bike-sharing methods, and major companies like Broad are leading the way in lowering carbon emissions in manufacturing and construction.
As a teacher in a Chinese high school in Changsha last year, I taught my students a few classes on social entrepreneurship, where they identified a social problem and brainstormed solutions for it. By far, pollution was the social problem they mentioned most frequently. At an extracurricular program I ran in Changsha, students had to design apps to solve environmental problems.
One of the best students I met in Changsha spent his free time coding an app to crowdsource air pollution measurements across the city.
I fear that the omnipresent Western portrayals of China as a bleak hellscape of smokestacks discourages people from exploring China’s natural wonders and beautiful countryside. From the dizzying peaks of Zhangjiajie to villages and rice paddies, China encompasses stunning beauty. And yet the first question I often get from friends about traveling here is about pollution.
Seeing silly and strange and problematic things is one of my favorite aspects of life in China. China is thought provoking. It makes me both question and appreciate many things back home. But if bad or silly news is all Western readers see of China, there is an extreme danger of otherizing its people, of seeing China only as a place of oddity, pollution, and repression, a dystopia filled with weirdos. How can they live like that, we will ask?
Life here is normal. The smog cloud is bad, but blue skies are not rare. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people care about the environment just as much as we do, and they are doing their best to fix the mistakes of the past thirty years. In all likelihood, visitors to Beijing 30 years from now will ride their app-activated bikes to the Forbidden City under a crisp blue January sky.