Massive LED screens in Beijing’s famous Tiananmen Square glow red through the haze. Pedestrians, many wearing space-age face masks to filter the toxic air, rarely even glance at the screens’ bold instructions: “Implement the Clean Air Action Plan”, “Improve air quality, start from myself, start with the small things, start now” and “It is everyone’s responsibility to protect the atmosphere”. The smog is so thick that buildings just across the way are wreathed in haze; outlines fuzzed, colours muted. Visibility is so poor that driving is dangerous. Flights are cancelled. Hospital admissions increase. Schools shut the doors. Advised to avoid ventilation and wear masks outdoors, residents hunker down and wait for a wind to come and blow the toxic fug away.
Finally, after decades of believing smog was just ‘weather’; a type of dense and oddly choking natural fog, many Chinese now understand their appalling ‘weather’ is mostly man-made. Largely a product of factories and cars and trucks, the smog is a side-effect of rapid industrialisation and China’s rocketing rate of double-digit economic growth. This economic miracle has hauled hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty. Still, they don’t like the smog. And they don’t like the government’s failure to get rid of it.
After extreme internal and external pressure, in recent years the Chinese authorities finally admitted smog is a problem across much of China, particularly northern cities, and serious funds have been allocated specifically for smog amelioration measures. Yet the filthy clouds keep rolling in.
Stephanie Teoh has been living in Beijing and inhaling the city’s pollution for five years. She’s a “Sydney girl” she says, and she’s a doctor – she once had practices in Darlinghurst, Erskineville and Clovelly. Teoh and her husband, the former journalist and blogger Trevor Marshallsea, have two daughters, Evie and Lani, aged seven and eight. They all enjoy the cosmopolitan life in Beijing, with multilingual friends from all over the world, the whole of China at their feet, and Europe and the US not so far away. The kids are growing up speaking Chinese and their horizons are much broader than if they’d stayed in Sydney. Beijing’s air, though, is a perennial disaster.
Beijing expatriates talk about pollution the way Australians talk about rain. There is a pollution lexicon. On “blue sky” days or “good air” days, life is fine. When the pollution days, or “bad pollution” days roll around it’s time to get out the face masks, make sure all the air purifiers are running, and keep the children inside.
Residents religiously monitor pollution indexes via phone apps and websites, Teoh says. The US embassy has provided frightening air quality readings via Twitter since 2008 and burgeoning local concern pushed the introduction of Chinese indexes in every provincial city in 2012. Ranging from zero, or theoretically no pollution, to a maximum of 500 (hazardous), these indexes include measures of particulate matter in the air. Perhaps the most dangerous particles, known as PM 2.5, are minuscule, measuring less than 2.5 microns, or thousandths of a millimetre (the average human hair is 70 microns in diameter). Thought to be particularly harmful, they can worm they way into the lungs and bloodstream.
Late in February this year, the US embassy pollution index edged over 500, noted with a bland “Beyond Index”. The smog levels stayed high for a week, and the World Health Organisation declared a crisis. In Beijing, hazardous is the new norm.
Shocking as the smog is in Beijing, it is often worse in other northern cities. Beijing doesn’t even make the list of ten worst polluted Chinese cities. The dubious distinction of “worst pollution in China” is often awarded to Xingtai, in the badly polluted northern province of Hebei.
Still, for Beijing’s residents, the finer gradations are mostly meaningless – they know their city’s smog dulls the senses and irritates the nerves. Last year, 20 million people living in the capital endured 189 days of pollution, or more than half the year; days when the skies were leaden and the air dangerous.
Surrounded by mountains, Beijing is more often than not blanketed by tenacious, hazy pollution. The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau says the smog is a toxic brew of car exhaust (31 per cent), coal smoke (22 per cent) and industrial emissions (18 per cent). In late April the bureau declared that between 28 and 36 per cent of the 2.5 particle pollution drifted in to Beijing from surrounding provinces, including Hebei.
“It’s a real concern for expats, and Chinese, everyone living in Beijing is concerned about the pollution. It’s all over weibo (China’s Twitter-like microblogging sites); all over the expat sites,” Teoh says with a sigh. Smog, she adds, has been connected with respiratory illnesses, heart disease, strokes and even cancer. “Anything over 100 has an impact on people. International schools have a policy – if it’s over 250 they don’t allow the students outside. A lot of outdoor activities get cancelled. This week it’s been over 400 for days; that has an impact on people, especially kids when they’re not even allowed outdoors. Sports get cancelled, they don’t have playtime at school. They basically just sit.”
Teoh routinely tests her Beijing patients for vitamin D deficiency, which can lead to osteoporosis. In Australia she might schedule these tests for institutionalised patients, perhaps prisoners or patients in a nursing home who don’t see the sun, or those patients who cover their skin for religious reasons. In Beijing she tests everyone. “It’s horrifying when you actually think about it, you’ve got masks on your children. But that’s what you do here,” she says ruefully. “You become accustomed to it in a very scary way. Now, when the pollution rating is 120, everyone says oh great, it’s only 120, and we all go outside. But 120 in Sydney and it makes the news.”
Teoh’s husband, Trevor Marshallsea, whose blog (www.thetigerfather.com) is a rumination on Beijing life with kids, says pollution is a simple fact of life in big northern Chinese cities, especially in winter when coal is burned for warmth. From his 11th floor apartment window, he has watched the pollution rolling in and texted a friend in the building next door as the friend’s building slowly disappeared. “There are days when you just can’t be bothered going outside,” he says matter-of-factly. “The air in our apartment is beautifully clean, and you know that because you can really smell and taste the difference when you come home.”
The US embassy index follows the US Environmental Protection Agency graduation: over 100 is noted as “unhealthy for sensitive groups”, over 150, just plain “unhealthy”. Over 300 is considered “hazardous”. Last year, at one point, the smog in Beijing registered over 750. “It was like armageddon,” Marshallsea says. He has a big head, and face masks don’t fit him well, but if he doesn’t wear one on bad days, he can feel the smog effect after about two minutes. “You feel it in the stomach and sometimes you can get quite queasy.”
This sort of smog pushes people out of the city. Cited as one of the most important reasons for leaving Beijing, the city’s toxic air routinely makes headlines around the world. “The expat lifestyle can offer a lot of rewards; you get decent wages and a lot of people have their rent and schools paid for by the company that brings them here,” Marshallsea reflects. “But more and more these days people are not extending their contracts because they say they’re just sick of the pollution. This is really an unnatural way to live, when you look at it.
Most air quality indexes combine a range of factors, including the very fine PM 2.5 particulate matter; PM 10 particulate matter (ten microns in size), nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone, so perfectly precise international comparisons can be difficult. Still, it is possible to compare certain elements, such as the PM 2.5 prevalence per cubic metre.
On a cloudy day in Sydney in late April, the PM 2.5 readings were low, considered “very good” to “good”, with the highest in Richmond at 15.6. In Melbourne, the highest PM 2.5 reading was at Traralgon, at 11.9. In Beijing, on the same day, the PM.25 reading reached 170 – one element in a US embassy index of 220, considered “very unhealthy”. This would be considered a good day by Beijing standards, a day when residents get out into the streets, shed their facemasks, do some exercise and enjoy the “good air day”.
From the cool green hills of Geelong in Victoria, Shannon Bufton has always been a keen cyclist, and he tries not to let the uber-smog of Beijing slow him down. Beginning life in China as an urban planner about seven years ago, the 37-year-old says now runs a bike shop/café, Serk, and he and his Chinese wife run the “Smarter Than Car” group (www.smarterthancar.com), trying to encourage cycling in the city.
Flat, with dedicated bike-lanes and usually bike-aware motorists, Beijing could be pushbike heaven. Yet the appalling smog discourages cycling, and the worse the smog gets, and the more cars are used, the worse the smog gets. And so it goes. Bufton now plans his life around the city’s “good air days”. “It’s something that you learn to live with,” he says, wryly. “Being in Beijing, you don’t have much choice. These days I get out to the mountains, the outer suburbs of Beijing, much more often, where the air is often much, much better. I did wear a face-mask for a while, but it was a pain in the bum. So on a bad air day I just avoid going outside.”
Bufton is more or less used to dealing with Beijing’s bouts of toxic smog. But he doesn’t like it. “It impacts on my life. Every time it goes above 400 there are thoughts going through my head about what am doing here, in this part of the world, when I could be back in Australia, where the air is fantastic. But there are other things that keep me here, so I put up with it.”
Beijing Chinese residents put up with it too, but often noisily. China’s social media sites carry swarms of pungent criticism from city-dwellers fed up with yellowish-grey skies and scratchy lungs. Although the micro-blog “weibo” posts are routinely censored by the authorities, many of these irritated postings remain visible for days.
Even the business channel of the national broadcaster, CCTV (China Central Television) was affronted by Beijing’s billowing clouds of pollution. “Beijing municipal government, don’t pretend to be blind in the fog,” the network posted on a weibo feed in February. “The government should not shun its responsibility nor turn a blind eye to the smog.” Rapidly removed, probably by censors, the acerbic message was nevertheless reposted on social media thousands of times within a few hours. Even the government-controlled China Daily newspaper had a jab at the city authorities with a pugnacious editorial: “Their inaction in the face of the heaviest air pollution in a month flies in the face of their own promises and their own credibility.”
Evidence that the Communist Party is occasionally jolted by roiling fury engendered by the smog: this year the Chinese press also seized on a scholarly paper by the Social Sciences Academic Press and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Noting that environmental conditions in Beijing were “barely suitable” for human life, the paper was covered in press reports couched in unusually strong language. Censors soon reportedly ordered the deletion of early state media reports on the paper, while the Global Times stressed that China had been held to exceptionally high standards.
While pointed criticism in rapidly deleted from the nation’s social media, China’s leaders know only too well that residents in the northern cities, particularly, are concerned and annoyed by the foul air they are too often forced to breathe. According to Chinese media, Premier Xi Jinping has recently described smog as Beijing’s most “prominent problem”. In perhaps a gesture of solidarity, the leader went for a much-publicised, and unmasked, supposedly impromptu walk in the capital when the smog was bad in late February (accompanied by a phalanx of equally bare-faced officials). “Breathe together, share a common fate” was the ensuing headline in the Beijing News.
Ever-sensitive to points of potential unrest, at roughly the same time as Xi’s stroll, the authorities announced a 10 billion yuan ($1.85 billion) fund to reduce smog by rewarding companies that limit emissions. The state news agency Xinhua reported that Beijing plans to shutter 300 polluting factories this year and by the end of April publish a list of industrial projects slated for suspension or closure. This follows the government’s decision last year to spend more than $300 billion on smog reduction measures.
Australians living in Beijing know that China is not the only country to inhale toxic air in the rush to industrialise. A number of western metropolises lived through decades of horrendous smog before eventually grappling with the problem. Photos of Los Angeles in the 1940s are eerily reminiscent of photos of Beijing today; smoggy vistas, thick haze, masked citizens. In 1947, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors began the first smog control program in the US, creating the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District.
London, too, was plagued by poisonous “pea-souper fogs”, in reality a combination of choking pollution and ordinary fogs. A four-day pea-souper in the 1950s is thought to have killed as many as 4,000 Londoners. By 1956, Britain’s parliament had pushed through the Clean Air Act, in an attempt to reduce domestic coal-burning within the city limits. Even so, by late 1962, sulphur dioxide in the nation’s air reached a perilous crescendo, and in 1968, factories burning coal, gas or other fuels were ordered to use tall chimneys.
Kristen McAnulty has lived in Beijing for four years, with her husband and her two young children, nine-year-old Jacob and Ethan, aged six. Originally from Sydney, she and her family first moved to Macau, and she remembers saying “at least it’s not Beijing”. As fate had it, within a couple of years they had moved to Beijing. Now, after four years in the city, they are old hands, and they try not to get too stressed by toxic air, although the spate of bad air days in late February got them thinking. “Something that would be considered bad air pollution in Sydney is when we open our windows and clear the air inside the apartment and go outside and play,” the stay-at-home mother says.
“We have air purifiers in all the bedrooms and one in the main room, we have plants in the house that are the best at cleaning the air. We’ve consciously made our home the best that we can make it for where we’re living. There are days when we don’t play outside unless we absolutely need to. We look at the readings some days, and think, well, what’s more important? Do the kids need to run outside and shake their sillies out, or do we stay inside and do something at home? And then there also some absolutely magical days in Beijing where you think, this is a beautiful city to live in.”
McAnulty laughs when she remembers a holiday in Australia, when her eldest son joyously announced every morning, ‘Mum, it’s another good air day!’. Finally she explained to him that in Australia, every day is a good air day. “For us the moment, Beijing is doable,” she says, just before the week of soaring pollution levels in late February. “We don’t often get two or three days of really bad pollution before a big wind gust comes through.”
True, the smog rarely lasts more than a few days at a stretch. After seven solid days of frightening smog in February, the eighth day dawned cold and fine in Beijing and the smog had gone, fallen from over 500 to 53 on the US embassy index, captioned as “good”.