Letter from Beijing: In 2015, smog struck fear into China’s leaders

The view Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, from the 65th floor of the Park Hyatt, one of Beijing’s elite hotels.
The view Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, from the 65th floor of the Park Hyatt, one of Beijing’s elite hotels. McClatchy

There’s an outdoor shopping center near my Beijing apartment called “The Place.” Every night, the giant overhead screen there is lit up with images of the Chinese Dream – karst mountains, ancient temples, families playing under blue skies.

A few weeks ago, during one of the city’s bouts with air pollution, I walked through The Place, wearing my smog mask and feeling sorry for a janitor who lacked one. He was sweeping the soot away from a newly installed Christmas tree.

My ex-pat friends here often joke that living in Beijing is like being in an abusive relationship: One day you love the place. The next day it chokes you by the neck.

And it’s true. Beijing can be wondrous – a cosmopolitan city with stunning historic sites, interesting food and fascinating people from all over the world. But when the smog rolls in, it strangles the life out of the city. Beijing’s bright colors – the red and gold lanterns, the streets lined with yellow ginko trees in fall – become airbrushed in gray. On those kind of days, you just want to stay in your apartment and listen to the hum of the air purification machine.

In my two years in Beijing, I’ve avoided writing frequently about the smog, partly because it has become such a relentless meme. The stereotypical photo shows a group of young Chinese, all wearing smog masks, standing in front of Mao Zedong’s portrait at Tiananmen Square.

You adapt your lifestyle around it. When the sky is blue, you take a run in the park. When the sky looks like crud, you catch up on your reading.

When my wife and I spend holidays in the United States, our friends largely ask about the air pollution. It’s all that many of them know about the world’s most populated country.

Still, if you live in China, it’s pretty hard to pretend that “the haze” – as locals call it – doesn’t exist. You adapt your lifestyle around it. When the sky is blue, you take a run in the park or go to the gym. When the sky looks like crud, you catch up on your reading, including scanning the news for signs that China might finally confront its environmental crisis.

There were signs of that in 2015.

Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping appointed a respected scientist, former Tsinghua University president Chen Jining, to serve as environmental minister. Late this year, Beijing started issuing red alerts – shutting down polluting factories and limiting vehicle usage – when forecasts showed three days of severe smog ahead.

This also was the year when China played a leading role in an international climate change agreement. It’s hardly a coincidence that China’s commitment under that pact dovetails with a domestic agenda – reducing reliance on dirty coal to cut air pollution.

As has been widely observed, the Chinese Communist Party has a single overriding priority – to stay in power. For several decades, environmental degradation was not seen as a threat to that rule, since many Chinese were willing to accept pollution as the price for an improved standard of living. But that is beginning to change. Chinese are increasingly protesting toxic contamination and industrial projects, especially when they are seen as posing a threat to their children.

Xi Jinping fears that shift in public opinion, as was illustrated by his party’s response this year to a documentary called “Under the Dome.”

Self-financed and produced by Chai Jing, a Chinese television journalist, “Under the Dome” became an overnight sensation in late February, when it was released on major Internet platforms, right before meetings of the National People’s Congress. The film presented Chai’s research into the origins and effects of China’s air pollution, including the possibility it may have caused a tumor in her recently born child.

“Come winter time, you want to run outside and watch your kid stick their tongue out to catch the falling snow, and tell them about the wonder of nature and life,” Chai says during the narration of the film.

“But today, every day I wake up, the first thing I do is look at the air quality index app on my smart phone. I use it to arrange my day. I wear my mask shopping, buying groceries, meeting with friends. I use tape to cover every window frame. When I take my kid out to get vaccines, I get scared when she so much as giggles for fear she’s breathing in more pollution.”

Every day I wake up, the first thing I do is look at the air quality index app on my smart phone.

Chai Jing, a Chinese television journalist

Chai’s documentary went viral in China. It was viewed more than 200 million times the first three days. Initially, China’s leaders seemed to embrace the message she was sending. The party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, posted the film on its website along with an interview with Chai. Chen Jining praised the video as China’s “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that exposed the threat posed by DDT and other pesticides. He added, “Chai Jing deserves our respect for drawing the public’s attention to the environment from a unique public health perspective.”

And then came the clampdown. On March 2, China’s propaganda department issued a directive to remove “Under the Dome” from all websites. Apparently, the party was more concerned about reaction to the film than the film itself.

While Chai was careful not to blame the party directly for China’s pollution problems, online commenters were starting to make that link. That’s why the propaganda department eventually censored the film, fearful that some might use it “as an opportunity to cast doubt or attack the government.”

As I write this, Beijing is under its second red alert in a week. My weekend is being spent indoors, running an air purifier that – because it is powered by China’s coal-fired electrical grid – contributes in a small part to the pollution outside.

Yet I’m in a safer space that many in the city. As I scan my apps for a forecast of wind to blow the gunk away, I’m thinking about all the janitors out there, trying to sweep away the soot of China’s economic miracle.

Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth