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!
Beijing has some of the most fantastic food in the world. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the air.
A soul-crushing blanket of smog descended on north and northeast China last Friday (just as I landed) and has not lifted for a moment since. Even though I love being back in The Jing, my lungs are decidedly NOT happy!
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.”
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.
Two months ago today I flew out of Beijing to begin a longish stint back in the US of A. For a variety of reasons, both personal and professional, I will be based in the US and travel often to China, instead of the other way around — as has been the case for the past 4 years.
I miss Beijing and my friends there A LOT, but following the news out of China last week reminded me of a couple of things that I don’t miss: the pollution and trying to get a taxi.
This problem had gotten so bad in my neighborhood that it was impossible to get a taxi between 7 and 9AM or between 5 and 7PM. Whenever someone would suggest an appointment at 8 or 9AM my heart would sink because I knew I would have to leave at 630 or 645 if I had any chance of getting out of my neighborhood. And sometimes, even if they were empty cabs on the roads, the drivers would just wave as they drove by.
A big story in the news in China this week was a yellow haze that enveloped the central city of Wuhan. A couple of netizens went online and suggested that it was the result of a chlorine leak, which stirred up the masses, which forced the government to declare that there was no leak; the cause of the smoke was farmers burning off old stalks in their fields.
Since then there has been much debate about the plausibility of the haze being the result of smoke, with netizens (Chinese and foreign) wondering why this would suddenly be a new phenomenon, given the fact that peasants burn their fields every year.
Tonight as I was riding home on my bicycle, I noticed the air smelled of smoke. When I got home I checked the Yahoo! weather for Beijing (I need to know how many layers of clothes to wear tomorrow), and, under “current conditions,” it said, simply, SMOKE. This is the only city I know of where SMOKE is one of the possible descriptors used for the weather report. It’s not uncommon to get SMOKE this time of year because all across the North China Plains, peasants are burning the fields after the harvest. I’ve been in rural areas of Shandong this time of year where it was so thick you could barely see across the street.
But here’s a thought….in a society where 70% of the males smoke, does anyone really notice?
Nobody fussed. Nobody started rumors. We just donned our masks or stayed indoors.
Peasants burning their fields and whole cities being enveloped by the resulting smoke is nothing new in China.
What is new is an internet environment that allows millions to go online and fuss.
This story, written by Adrienne Mong, focuses on the economic and health effects of our smog and the growing increasingly political nature of measuring air quality in Beijing. You see, the US Embassy monitors air quality in the capital and publishers their readings hourly on Twitter. It almost always hovers between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.” Sometimes it literally goes off the chart and the Twitter feed labels it “crazy bad,” at which point the Chinese government gets crazy mad and the laobaixing (common people) get crazy sad. Some have even speculated that this is what triggered the blocking of Twitter in China.Who knows?
Anyway, here are some of the key graphs from the article:
Earlier this month, a U.S. study on the economic impact of China’s air pollution was released with little fanfare. Maybe it was because of the series of successive “blue sky” days we were enjoying in the Chinese capital, thanks to the gusty winds blowing down from Mongolia.
The conclusion? “[D]espite improvements in overall air quality,” the cost of air pollution (as in lost economic productivity growth) in China has mushroomed from $22 billion in 1975 to $112 billion in 1995. But for at least one pair of 29-year old software engineers in Beijing, air pollution has actually meant greater economic productivity and a business opportunity.
Mong then goes on to write about the battle discrepancy between the US embassy and Chinese government readings (illustrated in the picture above):
The readings come from an air quality monitor that sits on top of the embassy in downtown Beijing, and they differ sharply from the daily results posted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).
AQI values on @BeijingAir range from 0 to 500. A “good” AQI is 0 to 50 or what the Chinese call a “blue sky” day. Unfortunately, many days in 2011 qualified as “unhealthy” to “hazardous.” But on some of those same days, MEP data maintained the levels were “good” or “moderate.” (The Chinese, in fact, claim there were 286 “blue sky” days in 2011.)
“The [Beijing] government says that nearly 80 per cent of the days in the last two years met at least the Chinese standard and therefore had good or even excellent air quality,” Steve Andrews, an environmental consultant who has analyzed the @BeijingAir data, said. “While when we look at the U.S. embassy data … over 80 per cent days exceeded what would be considered healthy air quality and more days were hazardous than good.”
Andrews said that Beijing’s pollution levels were “six or seven times higher than the U.S.’s most polluted city.” “Air pollution at these levels likely shortens life expectancy by about five years,” he added.
Who are you going to believe? The government or your burning eyes? I’m going with the eyes.