Letter from Beijing: Pollution turns out to be great leveler in China’s capital

Even in mid afternoon, the air was hazy in Beijing on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.
Even in mid afternoon, the air was hazy in Beijing on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. MCT

Even before the sun started to rise Thursday over this megalopolis of 21 million people, I could sense it would be a miserable lung day. The apartment where my wife and I were staying seemed smoky – even though we don’t smoke. Out the window, the lights from nearby skyscrapers were enveloped in a gray cloud.

When the sun rose, it was obvious – Beijing’s “airpocalypse” had returned. I could barely see the 4th Ring Road, the freeway that hums with cars and trucks just 100 yards from our building. Checking an app, I saw that particulate levels in Beijing had soared above 670 micrograms per cubic meter, or about 26 times higher than the World Health Organization considers safe.

China has many challenges, but air pollution is one that, if left unaddressed, will surely trip up its economic growth, kill its people and derail the Communist Party’s policy of “opening up” to the world. Tourism in Beijing has dropped from a year ago, at least partly because of worldwide publicity about smog. A recent study estimated that the average life expectancy in North China had dropped by 5.5 years because of air pollution generated by coal power production.

Last year, Beijing-like bouts of smog spread across the eastern and northern parts of the country, smothering cities such as Shanghai, whose residents thought they were immune. Wealthy Chinese now regularly schedule “lung-cleaning trips,” with Thailand’s Phuket Island and Indonesia’s Bali as top destinations, according to Chinese tourism authorities.

It is not as if China doesn’t recognize the threat. The government says it has pledged to spend $1.7 trillion yuan ($281 billion) by 2017 to tackle air pollution. Local governments have closed factories, fined polluters and even closed freeways on days when the smog is dangerous or “beyond index.”

The official position is that the problem is caused primarily by weather inversions, auto emissions and coal burning (industrial and residential), and all that is true. Yet as a country where there is little rule of law, China has no comprehensive system of monitoring, permitting and regulating sources of air pollution. Unlike most environmental agencies in the United States, it can’t track a pollution problem back to its source or sources and correct it.

On Thursday, I noticed the recommendation by the U.S. Embassy in China that people stay indoors and avoid any strenuous activity. But I didn’t have that option, and neither did millions of other working people here. I had interviews lined up on stories, and properties to inspect in our search for a permanent apartment. And so I set forth to the subway, wearing my N-95 face mask for the first time during our first week in Beijing.

By the time I reached the central business district and started exiting the subway, I felt dizzy. I grabbed the handrail to steady myself. I drank some water, felt better and then walked a few blocks to where I was meeting my assistant, Tiantian. By then, my mask was already speckled with soot.

As the day went on, the pollution decreased, but I could feel the effects of the cumulative exposure. My chest felt heavy, my throat was raspy and my nose was runny all afternoon. I walked through Ritan Park, where elegant older women were dancing, some wearing face masks.

I have little doubt that China will eventually clean up its air, and little doubt the government could accelerate the cleanup with a sustained commitment.

Yet China and elements of its state-controlled media still suffer from denial when it comes to air pollution. Last month, during a major smog bout outside of Beijing, a story on the website of China Central Television listed five benefits of the air pollution problem:

1. It unifies the Chinese people.

2. It makes China more equal.

3. It raises citizen awareness of the cost of China’s economic development.

4. It makes people funnier.

5. It makes people more knowledgeable (of things like meteorology and the English word haze).

I feel more equal already.