Over the weekend all of northern China was once again shrouded in eye-burning, lung-suffocating, soul-crushing smog. “Air-pocolypse,” they call it.
As I scrolled through my various news and social media feeds, it was pretty much the only story that people were talking about. If I hadn’t experienced such smog during my time living there (and on my visit to Beijing last week), I might not even believe the photos that were being posted.
But the absolute best story was the one about a performance artist, named Brother Nut, who walked around Beijing with a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the dirt and muck from the air, which he then formed into a brick!
Beijing has been swamped for days in a beige-gray miasma of smog, bringing coughs and rasping, hospitals crowded from respiratory ailments, a midday sky so dim that it could pass for evening, and head-shaking disgust from residents who had hoped the city was over the worst of its chronic pollution.
But “Brother Nut,” a performance artist, has something solid to show from the acrid soup in the air: a brick of condensed pollution.
For 100 days, Brother Nut dragged a roaring, industrial-strength vacuum cleaner around the Chinese capital’s landmarks, sucking up dust from the atmosphere. He has mixed the accumulated gray gunk with red clay to create a small but potent symbol of the city’s air problems.
I guess this means that if you are in China and you feel like you’ve inhaled a brick, well…apparently, you have!
A week and a half ago as a dress and a couple of llamas were melting the Internet in the US, Chinese netizens were gripped by an online documentary. The film, titled Under the Dome, is a hard-hitting look at the effects of pollution in China. It was posted on February 28, and within 48 hours had been viewed by 100 million people. Yes, you read that right, ONE HUNDRED MILLION!
Renowned investigative journalist Chai Jing has been widely praised for using her own money – more than 1 million RMB ($159,000: £103,422) – to fund the film, called Under the Dome. She first started the documentary when her infant daughter developed a benign tumour in the womb, which Ms. Chai blames on air pollution.
Standing in front of an audience in a simple white shirt and jeans, Ms. Chai speaks plainly throughout the 103-minute video, which features a year-long investigation of China’s noxious pollution problem.
At times, the documentary is deeply personal. Near the start of the documentary, Ms. Chai interviews a six-year-old living in the coal-mining province of Shanxi, one of the most polluted places on earth.
“Have you ever seen stars?” Ms. Chai asks. “No,” replies the girl.
“Have you ever seen a blue sky?” “I have seen a sky that’s a little bit blue,” the girl tells her.
“But have you ever seen white clouds?” “No,” the girl sighs.
Given the fact that the documentary is quite critical of the government’s lack of attention to the problem, many were surprised by the fact that it was online at all, especially at such a sensitive time leading up to the National People’s Congress. Perhaps that’s one reason it went viral so fast – people knew deep down that the government censors would eventually step in; everyone was trying to see it (and perhaps download it) before it was taken down.
Well, that finally happened on March 6. With the authorities apparantly feeling that 200 million viewers were a significantly greater threat to social stability than 100 million, the order went out for its removal from the Internet. Social media sites were told to disable sharing of the video and by Friday night it was gone from China’s major video sites, Youku and Tudou. Now you see it; now you don’t!
Fortunately, however, the video is available on YouTube, and English subtitles have been added. You can watch it in its entirety here (if you dare).
In a country where media is tightly controlled, it is surprising, if not unprecedented, to see the unimpeded release of a self-funded investigative documentary about one of the most sensitive topics challenging China’s growth, especially when the film is critical of more than a few government agencies and is circulating so widely just ahead of the annual convening of China’s main legislative body. Following below are contributor reactions to what has been described at China’s “Inconvenient Truth.”
I recently stumbled across this short video of things you see people doing in a park in Beijing. Parks in Beijing (and any other cities in China) are where retirees go to hang out. They sing, dance, play cards, and, apparently smoke. A lot!
Seeing all the smoking brought to mind a conversation I had with a tour bus driver in Beijing last year as we were standing around waiting for the group I was leading to board the bus. I had told him that I lived in Beijing for 15 years and he asked me to comment on all the changes I’d seen. Since it was a particularly smoggy day, I mentioned the pollution.
That set him off on a rant about how bad the pollution was and how the government wasn’t doing anything about it and how it was making people sick….all the while puffing away on a cigarette!
“Wait a minute,” I said to him…”you’re standing there fussing about air pollution while smoking a cigarette??”
He chuckled sheepishly.
I have long thought that in a country where upwards of 70% of the male population smokes, the uproar over the smog seems a bit misplaced!
Wednesday was the eve of the Chinese New Year, the night that ushers in 15 straight days of shooting off fireworks. In the run-up to the holiday this year, I spotted a poster in a Beijing neighborhood reminding people that fireworks are a source of pollution.
It says (roughly) “How much healthy air is taken away when you set off fireworks?”
The characters in red say “When setting off fireworks, be legal, be civilized, be safe.” “Don’t set them off; set off fewer of them; protect to the environment.”
I missed out on the fun because I left Beijing late last week. Never mind; I can always watch this video taken from my apartment in in 2010 to be reminded of what I missed.
Happy Year of the Goat!! Or sheep. Or ram! Whatever.
This is definitely my favorite story out of China this week — residents of Zhengzhou (my original China ‘home town’) lined up to take shots of O2 from bags filled with mountain air (from the Wall Street Journal):
“Proving that China’s fight against pollution has moved decisively into the realm of parody, bags containing mountain air were shipped into one particularly smog-addled city over the weekend.
Residents from the elderly to young children lined up for a chance at the bags. Reuters
No, it wasn’t a scene from Spaceballs. According to the organizer, a Henan-based travel company, 20 bright blue bags of air were shipped to Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province, as a special treat for residents. The air originated from Laojun Mountain, some 120 miles away from the city, and was brought as part of a promotional gimmick to show oxygen-deprived city residents what they’re missing.”
To be honest it’s hard for me to take all this newfound concern about pollution too seriously, given the fact that 70% of Chinese males smoke!
In fact, while I was in Beijing last month, I was chatting with our bus driver as we waited for the students to board. The driver was surprised to learn that I had been in China for so many years, and commented on the changes I must have seen in the city. Inevitably the topic of pollution came up.
Cigarette in hand, he launched into a rant about the terrible smog and how it was killing the quality of life in the city and that the government really needed to work harder to solve the problem.
“But you’re smoking,” I said. “How can you complain about the smog while puffing away on a cigarette??”