L, 23, Beijing 北京

22/01/2018

Have you ever stayed up until the early hours, drinking tequila and using chopsticks to scoop nut butter from the jar, whilst you and your roommate try to make sense of the world around you? For myself and my Tsinghua roomie, S – an intelligent, bubbly and independent American girl, this became a frequent pastime. Sitting on our wooden beds, surrounded by the looming bare walls of our communist-styled dormitory, we would complain about the suffocating pollution, analyse what our Chinese classmates deemed as right, just and moral compared to our own standards, and of course how to source more nut butter.

In October 2017 and at the age of 21, S became engaged to L, an easy-going and charming Chinese native who she met at University in Wisconsin USA back in 2014. Described as the ‘ultimate team’, they have a 5, 10, 20 and 50 year life plan. Having spent a short time living in Beijing together after graduation, S had to return to the USA due to stringent visa requirements, whilst L remains in Beijing working as a management trainee for a Hong Kong 3rd party Logistics company. Interested to find out L’s stance on government progress and the perception of pollution by Beijingers, I set up a Skype with him over the Christmas holidays. This story outlines the causes, consequences and reactions to Beijing’s air pollution by natives, activists and China’s government.

pollution1

L was raised in Shandong province山东省, in a town called Yantai烟台市. He was enrolled in an international private high school just outside Beijing 北京市 and boarded for 6 days of the week, returning home on Saturdays to do his laundry and homework. Due to the intense nature of high school and studying in the USA as a business major undergraduate, L has never had the opportunity see much of Beijing. However in the past 6 months he’s been able to explore the incredible hutongs, the numerous independent family restaurants dotted around the city, and many cultural heritage sights.

For want of a better understanding of some of the terms outlined in the following paragraphs, it is important to understand a few things. Firstly, in Chinese, pollution translates as wuran 污染. Alternatively, wumai 雾霾 translates as fog, or haze. The two are frequently used interchangeably by Beijingers – particularly the uneducated who mistake the toxic air for Beijing’s historic dry, dusty and arid climate.  [1] Secondly, PM2.5 are ‘atmospheric particulate matter’ produced from motor vehicles, power plants, airplanes, dust storms and agricultural burning. They have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, and are smaller than PM10 which comes from dust, mould and pollen. Long-term exposure to PM2.5 enables the particulate matter to enter the circulatory system having bypassed the nose, throat and lungs. Finally, the table below is sourced from the USA Environmental Protection Agency and gives an index of air pollution levels and its subsequent health implications. [2]

pollution 2

Curious about the history of Beijing’s air pollution, L and I discussed what it was like witnessing the deterioration in air quality. During his high school years (2008-2014) and in the years prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, L told me he felt the pollution was ‘tolerable’. In the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government took rigorous measures such as closing construction sites and imposing traffic controls, in an effort to curb the worrying decrease in air quality. [3] However, their efforts fell short of international standards, and the games were branded ‘the most polluted ever’. [4] Consequently, concern for Beijing’s air quality among its inhabitants began to increase dramatically within the capital. In 2010, according to social media expert Angela Hsu, the term PM2.5 accumulated 3 million mentions on Weibo in a single month. Moreover, the US embassy’s AQI (Air Quality Index) located in Beijing shows that between 2008 and 2014, Beijing suffered from 1,812 “unhealthy” level air quality days – only 2 days were characterised as “good” [5] If you’re intrigued as to what the pollution levels are today, follow this link: http://aqicn.org/city/beijing/

Pollution clearly existed, people talked about it, and gradually the effects on Beijinger’s heath became increasingly prominent. Almost all of L’s classmates suffered daily from irritated airways – resulting in runny noses, sneezing, coughing and sore throats. Whilst these symptoms became the norm, the first time L became consciously anxious about Beijing’s air quality was when he began to smell the pollution. He described the sensation as the dense and suffocating feeling of lingering cigarette smoke, with a subtle odour of heavy car fumes and burning coal. The WHO’s Global Burden of Disease report found that in 2010 there were 1.2 million premature deaths within China (just over the entire population of Cyprus) as a direct consequence of air pollution. Cases of adult mortality have increased, caused directly by respiratory related diseases – for example lung cancer has risen over 60% within 10 years whilst the smoking rate remains unchanged, and in 2013, 320,000 children and 61,000 adults were reported to suffer from asthma [6] In fact, the lifespan in Beijing is 5-6 years shorter than any other city in China. [7]

pollution 3

The causes of Beijing’s air pollution lie within both natural and manmade influences. Its topography is surrounded by mountains and the climate is naturally dry, dusty and arid. Whilst Beijing’s geography (arguably) cannot be changed, it is the artificial factors that predominantly seem to almost encourage the pollution to linger – sometimes for months on end. Along with economic development and the surge in China’s affluent middle-class, the use of cars has increased exponentially with an estimated 1,200 added to Beijing’s roads daily. “Emissions from motorized vehicles contribute to nearly 70% of the city’s air pollution.” [8] Factories within the provinces surrounding Beijing such as Harbin and Hebei use coal as energy, and frequently manufacturing techniques are outdated and technology is inefficient. Wind blows this toxic air into Beijing, where it sits blocked from escaping due to the mountains. Finally, population growth as rural to urban migration sweeps the nation whereby citizens strive to find better opportunity has resulted in Beijing’s population swelling to 21.7 million (2016) [9] Beijing as the capital attracts a range of talent from researchers, teachers, entrepreneurs, students and artists, yet the city is buckling under the weight of millions of people, which is consequently having a tremendous effect on its air quality.

There are various means citizens take (or don’t take) to protect themselves against the pollution. Most people L knows have air purifiers in their homes to filter out the PM2.5, and wear masks outdoors – either paper or high quality masks. L described a particular colleague at work who doesn’t see the point in wearing a mask – he smokes 2 packets of cigarettes a day so sees no logic in protecting himself against the pollution when smoking will have more of a harmful impact. And there are many others like him: taxi drivers, construction site workers, labourers etc. Without the education nor the means to invest in a high-quality mask, to them the lingering pollution seemingly makes no difference to their health. L stated it is not uncommon for the small circle filters attached to the high-quality masks to become grey within a week. Changing your mask filters for the first time is a shocking experience, but you get used to it. I asked L how significant the pollution is in terms of his quality of life and whether it had had an impact on him physically and mentally. He replied, “Nope, not for me. I’m a pretty easy-going kinda guy. Some days it’s annoying having to wear your mask. I mean, if you have to sneeze, do you sneeze in the mask, or take it off and sneeze? That could get kinda messy.” Laughing in the face of Beijing’s grey, toxic haze is one of the many ways to cope with the city’s environment.

pollution 4

Standing up against the Chinese government isn’t recommended, as proven through chilling historical events. Whilst the large majority of citizens seem to be suffering in silence, others are making their voice heard. ‘Under the Dome 穹顶之下’ was released in 2015 by Chai Jing, former China Central Television journalist. Having received 300 million views within a week of its release, the government swiftly blocked the documentary. Chai encourages individuals to take responsibility, stating “This is how history is made. With thousands of ordinary people one day saying, ‘No, I’m not satisfied, I don’t want to wait. I want to stand up and do a little something.’” [10]

L said it is sometimes difficult to know to what extent the Chinese government are making breakthroughs to quash pollution levels due to predominantly government-controlled media outlets. He was adamant they would surely act in the interest of Chinese citizens before letting the situation become deadly. L has only ever been exposed to positive news distributed by the government in an effort to battle pollution. “It’s kind of a China problem” L hesitated, elaborating by saying citizens are fed exactly what the government wants them to believe. In spite of this, centuries of socialising being at the forefront of Chinese society has meant that people will simply discover news by word of mouth – exchanging news over a bowl of noodles with friends, at a business banquet, or over a pot of green tea with neighbours. It’s an ‘unofficial’ news outlet, but it’s effective and in China it acts as a way for people to stay connected to reality. L reckons that if China can really solve their pollution problem, this would be looked upon with awe from many other nations, paving the way for China to become the global power.

Living in Beijing last year, my babbling conversations with Beijing taxi drivers would often go a little like this:  “Oh, foreign person! Where are you from? Do you like Beijing?  – 哦,老外!你是从哪儿里来的?你喜欢北京吗?” to which my ‘go to’ response, knowing I could provoke a reaction, was this, “No, because Beijing has pollution and I can’t breathe – 不喜欢,因为北京污染太重,我每天呼吸不了.” Naturally followed by laugher at my (debatably) over-dramatic response. “I think Beijing isn’t too bad, London also has pollution haha! – 我觉得北京污染还可以,伦敦也有哈哈!” The Great Smog of 1952, caused by a combination of rare weather factors and air pollutants caused by excessive coal burning due to a very cold winter, resulted in an estimated 4,000 – 12,000 deaths in the UK’s capital. [11] Subsequent uproar led to the implementation of the Clean Air Act in 1956, and whilst London continues to suffer from air pollution, the levels are incomparable to those in Beijing. Discussing this with L, he told me that London’s historic pollution is often cited as an excuse by Chinese natives defending Beijing’s current air quality situation. As countries go through a period of industrialisation, it is only natural that there will be consequences – both positive and negative on society, for which they will deal with as and when. Given London’s (supposed) ability to resolve its pollution, Beijingers remain hopeful that their capital will also follow this trajectory.

And the government is acting. In 2013, the Heavy Air Pollution Contingency Plan was passed. Consisting of 4 warning levels, different actions are taken – ranging from closing schools, banning barbeques and fireworks, temporarily closing factories, enabling alternate odd and even numbered number plated vehicles and on a specified day of the week to be on the roads, as well as even forbidding freight and construction vehicles during certain hours. However, for L, the recent government regulations (Since September 2017, cargo trucks are forbidden from entering the 6th ring road from 6am until midnight) on these vehicles has impacted the company he is working for and put a strain on logistics. Whatsmore, carbon exhaust cylinders are being fixed to these trucks. Paradoxically, once they reach the end of their product use, they are disposed of by being burnt thereby releasing chemicals and pollutants into the air. More shockingly, faced with the strain consumption, waste and overcrowding, the government are attempting to reduce the size of Bejing. Low-quality buildings are being taken down, and their inhabitants moved out … although L wasn’t sure where to.

The concern for these regulations lies in whether they are sustainable in the long-term, and to what extent China is going to continue sacrificing the health of its population in order to sustain its economic growth trajectory. Whenever there is a high-profile, government or international conference in the capital, the skies remain blue for days on end as the government ramp up efforts to show the world Beijing’s air isn’t as bad as everyone believes. In November 2014, Beijing held the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. (APEC) Netizens on Weibo wrote, “It’s not sky blue or ocean blue … A few years ago it was Olympic blue, and now it’s apec blue.” The term ‘Apec blue’ caused a storm on Chinese social media, coming to mean something of artificial and fleeting beauty. “He’s not really into you … it’s just an apec blue.” [12]

The decision of whether to reside in China or the USA has been discussed at length between L and his fiancée. At such an exciting time of their lives, they are both happy, healthy and in love. However for the young, dynamic American-Chinese couple, raising a family under the current conditions of Beijing’s environment is far from desirable. Faced with amounting global consumer demand for cheap goods, competition from developed nations such as the USA and the UK, that have already been through the process of industrialisation, and a growing domestic middle-class demanding luxurious lifestyles, should we not allow for this temporary (admittedly somewhat chaotic) period of development in the hope that China might soon become world leaders in innovation for renewable energy and sustainable cities? L is confident the Chinese government will rectify its global competitors’ historic environmental neglect during the industrialisation process, and pave the way for clean, breathable air.

 

Bibliography

[1] En.people.cn. Expert: Heavy fog different from air pollution http://en.people.cn/202936/7640046.html

[2] Cfpub.epa.gov. Air Quality Index (AQI) Basics. https://cfpub.epa.gov/airnow/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi

[3] Chicago Policy Review. The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games: Spillover Effects on Air Quality and Health. http://chicagopolicyreview.org/2016/02/12/the-2008-beijing-olympic-games-spillover-effects-on-air-quality-and-health/

[4] Jamieson, A. Beijing Olympics were the most polluted games ever, researchers say. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/london-2012/5597277/Beijing-Olympics-were-the-most-polluted-games-ever-researchers-say.html

[5] Thebeijinger.com.Years of Breathing Dangerously: A Beijing Air Pollution Timeline. https://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2015/11/24/years-breathing-dangerously-beijing-air-pollution-timeline

[6] Who.int. WHO | Global burden of disease. http://www.who.int/topics/global_burden_of_disease/en/

[7, 8] Osu.pb.unizin.org. 4.2 Causes and Consequences of Air Pollution in Beijing, China | https://osu.pb.unizin.org/sciencebites/chapter/causes-and-consequences-of-air-pollution-in-beijing-china/

[9] Worldpopulationreview.com. http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/beijing-population/

[10] Under the Dome by Chai Jing: Air pollution in China. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5bHb3ljjbc

[11] Encyclopedia Britannica. The Great Smog of London https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Smog-of-London

[12] Wainwright, O. (2018). Inside Beijing’s airpocalypse – a city made ‘almost uninhabitable’ by pollution. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/16/beijing-airpocalypse-city-almost-uninhabitable-pollution-china

 

Image 1) https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/china-tries-new-tactic-combat-pollution-transparency

Image 2) https://cfpub.epa.gov/airnow/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi

Image 3) https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2012/10/mapping-the-city.phtml

Image 4) Under the dome documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5bHb3ljjbc

Image 5&6) Own: taken from my shared room with S in February 2017.

 

On Monday 22nd January, the subject’s permission was granted in electronic format before the publication of L, 23, Beijing 北京 on the blog 66hands.wordpress.com

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