Beyond a choke

QWeekendLOGOSeeing the rows of small masked faces on the school bus made it all very clear for Sharon Carr. She had lived in Beijing for five years, and she loved the city and loved the people. It was home. She had a good job; her husband enjoyed his work. Her five-year-old son Matthew and her seven-year-old daughter Amelie liked school and liked their friends, and they were growing up speaking fluent Mandarin – a priceless skill in today’s world.

But the toxic clouds of pollution swirling around China’s capital city had finally pushed Carr to make the big decision to get out and take the kids back to live in Australia. This is no ordinary smog that might blur the Brisbane horizon on a very bad day – this is a dense, particulate-filled fug that can lead to severe respiratory disease and bring on asthma attacks. “There has always been a concern in the back of my mind, but over the last two months I have been really worried,” Carr says. “I have decided to leave because of the pollution alone. It’s never been this bad.”

It’s smog that can be so thick that driving is hazardous simply because visibility is so poor and the city’s residents are warned not to venture outdoors. It can be so thick that flights have to be cancelled, and if they arrive the air hostesses hand out face-masks on touchdown. So thick that factories are told to slow down production and schools cut outdoor activities.

One international school has even erected pressurised domes over playing fields so the children can play outside on bad days – it’s like a science fiction scene about life on the moon or a distant airless planet. It’s a horror preview of what can happen when smog gets completely out of hand.

Beijing isn’t blanketed by this terror fug every day, but over the winter the days of toxic smog were becoming more common and the city’s residents were often battling to breathe. There were runs on air filter masks and air purifiers, and photos of the masked Beijingers walking through the thick grey poisonous cloud made it into newspapers all around the world. The city of 20 million people choked on a toxic combination of car exhaust fumes, factory smoke, and smoke from coal heating. Other cities across northern China had it just as bad, the fall-out from a bitterly cold winter and ever-increasing industrial development.

Sharon Carr says she is comfortable with the decision to leave Beijing and return to Perth, even though her husband will stay in the city to work, at least part-time. As a part-owner of his company, he can become a white-collar fly-in fly-out chief executive, dividing his time between Beijing, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

Carr has already bought the air tickets, and she and the children will abandon Beijing for good in June. Staying in the pollution-shrouded capital, she thinks, would be like keeping her children in a war zone. “A lot of people are making the same decision now,” says the 41-year-old training consultant, who is originally from Perth. “My mum called me; my brother called me. They were begging me to come home.”

Before the recent run of toxic days began, she comforted herself with the thought that children’s lungs regenerate easily. But the bad days kept coming, and getting worse. The family has always had air purifiers in their flat, and the school the children go to has installed high quality purifiers. But the pollution kept climbing up the index, and on one of the very bad days, Carr finally decided it was too much. It was time to go. “The locals have had enough,” she says. “They’re pretty pissed off now. The sad thing is they can’t leave. They’re kind of stuck here.”

China prides itself on an astonishing rate of often double-digit economic growth that has hauled tens of millions of people out of serious, biting poverty over the last three decades. The price of this growth has been increasingly polluted air and polluted water, and now many Chinese people are wondering whether the price has been too high.

On guard in the city's smog. Photo by Sian Powell

On guard in the city’s smog. Photo by Sian Powell

Chinese authorities usually avert their gaze from the clouds of smog swirling through the nation’s cities, but Premier Wen Jiabao, who is soon to step down, acknowledged the problem in late January. In a statement posted on the central government’s website he said the smog was “affecting people’s production and their health” and advised immediate action to deal with the problem. But the man who is expected to take his place this month (subs March), Vice-Premier Li Kequiang, warned there was no short-term fix. Quoted by state radio, he said the problem had been in the making for a long time, and resolving it would “require a long-term process”.

The billowing smog galvanized China’s microbloggers who bashed out messages of scorn and derision on the various microblogging sites. A message from lawyer Xu Xin on the Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo (usually rigorously censored by the Chinese authorities) was reposted more than 47,000 times. Over a photo of grey haze, he wrote: “The greatest distance on earth is … standing in Tiananmen Square, and not being able to see Chairman Mao”, whose massive portrait sits atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace looking over the Square.

In January, the actor Song Dandan posted a mournful message on Sina Weibo: “I was born and brought up in Beijing and have lived here for more than 50 years. The flood of emigration and every other type of temptation were not enough to make me leave this lovable city. Today, this thought keeps whirling in my mind: ‘Where will I go to spend my later years?” Television celebrity Zhang Quanling was acerbic in his weibo post. “I really don’t understand people who smoke outdoors. They really don’t know how to be thrifty! Right now in Beijing, you can smoke for free anywhere you go by taking two breaths of air.”

The Chinese authorities are working on the problem, but an insatiable demand for energy is outstripping the nation’s ability to build power stations, and many newly rich Chinese want to drive cars.

The smog in Shanghai rarely reaches Beijing’s toxic levels, but mining company executive Mark Rivers, 44, estimates he gets to see a blue sky about once a fortnight. From Woodridge near Brisbane, he has lived in the coastal city of 23 million people for four years and his lungs have been complaining. He developed a persistent hacking cough and he didn’t fully recover for some time.

“I was having to leave meetings and interrupt telephone calls because of coughing fits,” he says. “I’ve never had a problem anywhere else I’ve lived.”

He thinks smoggy days are the new normal in much of China. “I actually think people in China have forgotten what the sky looks like. I think they’ve forgotten what normal is.” He is pessimistic about the potential for clean skies, at least in the short term, believing it will get worse before it gets better. Recently visiting Xian, the home of the terracotta warriors and one of China’s major tourist attractions, he was startled to find visibility was down to about 200 metres.

Last year the Chinese authorities finally began publishing frightening information on PM 2.5 pollution levels recorded in the nation’s cities. These PM 2.5 readings measure the levels of tiny and dangerous 2.5 microgram particulates in the air; “fine” particles so small they can penetrate deep into lung tissue and even enter the bloodstream.

The US embassy in Beijing first started publishing PM 2.5 data in 2008, which the Chinese authorities appeared to find intensely annoying (WikiLeaks published a 2009 cable which noted the Chinese officials found the embassy’s data “confusing and insulting”, and urged an end to it, lest the China-US relationship was adversely affected).

An outing in the haze. Photo by Sian Powell

An outing in the haze. Photo by Sian Powell

Eventually, though, public demand, perhaps inspired by the US embassy feed, pushed China to begin broadcasting data on the levels in every provincial city. Now the US consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu all publish PM 2.5 readings on an easily understandable index, broadcast via Twitter and available on the net. Daily reading for just about every expatriate and many Chinese residents, the indexes monitor the hazards of something we have all taken for granted for so long – the air we breathe.

In 2010 the Beijing embassy index went over the maximum reading of 500, dubbed “crazy bad” by a startled American official in an honest but undiplomatic tweet that was rapidly deleted by the embassy. Since then PM 2.5 index levels have regularly leaped over the index maximum (“tersely recorded as “beyond index”), reaching as high as 900 on occasions. A frightening run of super-high days in December and January shocked even hardened Beijing residents. That startled American official may well have called them “super extra crazy-bad”.

When the level soared over 700 on one day in January, Beijingers were incensed. “This is a historic record for HYPERLINK “”Beijing,” wrote Zhao Jing, a Beijing resident who usually writes under the name Michael Anti. “I’ve closed the doors and windows; the air purifiers are all running automatically at full power.”

Sadly, the December and January pollution wasn’t a single winter surge, to be endured and forgotten. In early to mid February the reading in Beijing was still hovering over 350 – “hazardous” and “protection required” before it finally fell to “good” on Valentine’s Day.

Jessica Rudd has lived in Beijing since 2009, with her husband Albert Tse and baby daughter Josephine. It’s the second go round for the 29-year-old novelist who grew up on Brisbane’s southside. She lived in China’s capital with her family when she was an infant and her father, the former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, was a diplomat at the Beijing embassy.

“I moved to Beijing when I was exactly Josephine’s age, eight months old,” she says. “At the time, it was a place where everyone burned coal and it was filthy and sooty and Mum just described it as being grey.”

Like all the other residents of Beijing, and those living in other northern Chinese cities, she dislikes the pollution, and she and her husband have spent $2,000 on a Swiss-made air purifier for their daughter’s bedroom. Other cheaper models do battle with the air in the main bedroom and the living room. “If it gets worse or stays the same as it is the moment we might invest in another you-beaut Swiss one,” Rudd says.

She has friends who have recently decided to leave the city, because of the pollution and for other reasons – but the pollution is always a factor in any exodus decision. “But there are also wonderful days in Beijing,” she says. “The fact is, there are weeks at a time that can be beautiful and blue and then there are others which can be just foul.”

Rudd knows that China is in the middle of an enormous industrial revolution, and Beijing is not the only city that has been suffocated by the pollution that follows rapid industrialisation.

Sixty years ago, London was smothered by smog that killed thousands of people. Like Beijing in recent months, London had an extraordinarily cold winter beginning in 1952, and Londoners burned more coal to stay warm. In December of that year, a rolling, pea-souper smog settled on the city and at times visibility was down to one foot (30 centimetres). Londoners literally couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces in the filthy, sooty, soupy air. It’s now thought that as many 12,000 people, mostly the ill and elderly, died as a result of that particular bout of smog. The government took action with Clean Air Acts, but ten years later, pea-soupers were still suffocating Londoners. “I think that’s the thing we all have to keep in mind,” Rudd says. “This is the Chinese industrial revolution and of course it’s going to be polluted.”

Byproduct of an industrial revolution or not, Beijing’s smog has been a hot topic in China’s newspapers, (which have produced some remarkably critical coverage), on social media and of course on internet blogs.

The Asia Beat blog was scathing. “At 950 micrograms per cubic metre, (the PM2.5 level in Tongzhou, on January 13), Beijing’s famously bad air pollution has finally reached comercially mineable levels. Chinese officials are delighted that unburnt coal particles, oxides of lead, mercury and carbon will now be a commercial asset to the city.” The blog went on to report that “Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is said to be keen to exploit the resources literally lining the dusty streets of the ancient capital. ‘Even the lungs of someone who has lived in Beijing for over a year could be worth $150 on the rare metals spot market,’ a spokesman for the company said.”

The smog has little comic appeal for a Brisbane couple who moved to Beijiing with their kids six months ago. Francesca Jacovelli and Paul Priebbenow have found the smog depressing and limiting, and now they think it could be affecting seven-year-old Sienna’s health.

“I’ve realised that on high pollution days, anything above 300, that Sienna’s really lethargic,” Jacovelli says. “I’ve only made that connection in the past month. We’d go out and within an hour Sienna would say ‘I’m so tired, I can’t walk any more’. I thought it was because it was hot, and we were in a new place, but high pollution days really do seem to affect her. Perhaps because her lungs are a little bit compromised from having asthma anyway.”

In Brisbane, this family lived in Sandgate and spent a lot of their time outside – walking, biking, kayaking and breathing deep in the clean air freshened by the bay and the Boondall wetlands. In Beijing they live in a 12th floor apartment, they can’t open the windows, and there’s little green to be seen. “While it’s fun and exciting and it’s great being in a different country and learning about a new culture and new language, the lifestyle is a bit depressing, and you’re limited in what you can do on a day to day basis,” Jacovelli says.

Priebbenow has a two-year contract to work in Beijing as a water quality consultant, and Jacovelli has already warned him not to consider extending it beyond two years, because she’s taking the kids home to Queensland as soon as this contract is finished. Or maybe even earlier.

But Priebbenow is interested in Beijing’s pollution on a professional level. “Experiencing it first-hand is something quite interesting. Because my thoughts about water quality, all of this stuff that’s in the air, obviously we breathe it in, but it doesn’t stay in the air. Those particles pollute waterways and have an impact on ecology and an additional impact on health.”

He rides his bike to work in Beijing when the pollution permits, but if the US Embassy reading goes over 300 or 400 he considers staying at home. Frustrated by limitations imposed by smog, Priebbenow says the level for cancelling various children’s activities is 250 on the US Embassy measure, and often it’s hard to know whether 11-year-old Oliver will get to his soccer training or not.

Jacovelli chafes at the restrictions. “Those couple of weeks when it was reading off the scale, we just stayed inside. It was just dismal. It was like Armageddon.”