The haze may be receding, but it has left its mark on the hearts and lungs of millions of Chinese.
Last week, the Chinese government declared Beijing’s first ever Red Alert for smog and pollution. The city was shut down for three days as air pollution levels reached hazardous levels and an opaque haze made buildings disappear in front of residents’ eyes. What is it like to live daily life under such toxic conditions?
Smog, smog, go away, little children want to breathe, I think as I trudge to work, trying not to inhale too deeply. My breath bounces off my pollution mask into my glasses, fogging them instantly. Great, now I’m suffocating and blind.
Welcome to the Airpocalypse.
In Beijing, China, the air can become so toxic it causes equivalent damage to your lungs as smoking 40 cigarettes a day—at least according to a 2015 study by Berkeley Earth Institute. A few more scary statistics to consider: air pollution causes approximately 1.6 million premature deaths a year in China. Eighty-three percent of Chinese are daily exposed to air that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in America would deem unhealthy. This is determined by measuring the PM2.5 index (PM2.5 are small particles that infiltrate the lungs and cause respiratory illnesses—so named because they are less than 2.5 microns in diameter). The World Health Organization (WHO) calculates that the highest safe level of PM2.5 air particles is 50. This morning, the index reads 600.
On days like this, Beijing takes on an otherworldly look. I can stare directly at the sun, whose dim red rays struggle to penetrate through the haze to reach the beleaguered residents of this city. The sky resembles Rover’s pictures of the sun as seen from Mars, or the background in a dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi film.
The city is hushed. School is cancelled. Residents are advised to stay indoors and if they must venture out, to wear the ubiquitous mouth-masks of Beijing. I buy a pack as well, and don my own flimsy piece of paper whose qualifications to work as an air filter remain dubious.
My lungs feel constricted. When I blow my nose, the tissue turns black. I reassure myself with the thought I won’t stay in Beijing more than two years. There are over thirty-five million residents in this city, and they have tolerated this for years. Surely my young pink lungs can take a few months.
Real Beijingers don’t have the luxury of this thought to comfort them. And Beijing is far from the most polluted city in China- how can millions of Chinese citizens accept this toxic environment so complacently? The answer is, of course, they have no choice.
Last year, a movie called Under the Dome went viral in China. Written by a famous journalist called Chai Jing, it was one of the first in-depth reportages of air pollution in this notoriously opaque society. Reminiscent of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, it features Chai Jing standing on a stage and detailing how the mining and coal industries are complicit in poisoning the airs and lungs of Chinese citizens, and the powerlessness of environmental agencies in this matter. Within a week it had garnered more than 200 million views.
“Did you watch Under the Dome?” I asked my students in class.
“Yes, yes,” they all chorused back. “A very good movie. China air is so bad!”
Unsurprisingly, the film was banned almost immediately. The next week I walked back into class.
“Did you hear Under the Dome was banned?”
They shake their head gravely. “That journalist is a liar. She said many untrue things. Many wrong facts.”
And so the issue is silenced again, the big hazy elephant in the room. In some ways discussing the smog in China is as normalized as complaining about the rain in London. A casual way to start a conversation when I walk into the office in the morning.
“The haze is very great today!”
“Yes, yes. Make sure to wear your mouth-mask.”
And yet the causes and impacts of this haze remain shrouded in fog. Undiscussed is the tremendous health toll it will take on the population, the years it chops off everyone’s lives, the reluctance of the government to tackle the issue. It is an open secret that the government regularly underreports the PM2.5 index, yet no one complains. The haze is treated as a natural meteorological phenomenon, this great opaque veil that occasionally descends upon the city and envelops it in yellow, leaving a burnt flavor on our lips.
Until, that is, Beijing takes center place in the world stage. Then the government is quick to take action, like a mother scolding her child to clean his room because guests are coming for dinner. This time, the guest is Obama, and the occasion is the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
In the weeks coming up the event, President Xi Jinping is aggressive. The world will be looking at China, and Beijing had better put on a good face. Factories are shut down. Traffic is limited. A week of holiday is declared in Beijing, so that residents will go home and the streets will empty.
And so the Chinese government proves it ability to control the weather, like some sort of omnipotent, Communist God. A deep blue dome appears over Beijing. A light breeze caresses the city. Fluffy white clouds dance merrily in the sky. The city is transformed. A new phrase is coined: “APEC blue,” to describe something of transient beauty. A bittersweet netizen writes a poem: “Your boyfriend doesn’t really love you/It’s only an APEC blue.”
On clean days, Beijing is among the most beautiful cities in the world. The air is clear and crisp. Shiny new skyscrapers twinkle under the sun, and below them the reds and greens of the ancient temples contrast beautifully with the deep blue sky. The city has more than 800 years of history, and tradition and modernity mix together at every corner. In good weather it is an outdoor city, with chairs and patios springing up on the sidewalks, families crowding in the lush green parks. Beijingers sit outside eating barbecue and egg pancakes. The smell of frying meat and cigarettes infuse the air.
APEC is a success. The international media reports positively on the event, and the world leaders return to their respective homelands. Beijing has saved face.
Factories resume production. Schools reopen. The holiday is over. Within days, the haze is back.
I don’t want to give the impression that Beijing is perpetually enveloped in a toxic shroud of yellow smoke. During the summer, the sky is almost perpetually blue. My mother visited for a month in July and left with the impression air pollution is a construct of Western media, propaganda against an upstart superpower threatening the status quo. It is only truly severe in the winter, when the city uses coal to heat its homes. Even then, the haze is usually more of an innocent shroud, tainting the sky like a white Instagram filter. It is easy to ignore, until it’s not. When the index jumps to 900, the sun turns red at noon, the buildings outside our windows disappear, and we all get a niggling cough in the back of our throats.
The haze always vanishes eventually, and Chinese netizens celebrate their newfound ability to breathe by inundating social media with pictures of sun and sky. People mill on the streets, inhaling deeply, expanding their lungs to bursting capacity with crisp, cool air. Despite the recent conditions, Beijingers maintain a sense of optimism. The Chinese government has publicly committed to solving the problem, and every year there is marginal improvement. The haze is on the defensive, regularly losing the battle over control of the city against the fresh northern Mongolian wind. Yet an entire generation has grown up breathing poisonous air. The haze may be receding, but it has left its mark on the hearts and lungs of millions of Chinese. This is a problem wind cannot blow away.