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Kissing the Smog Monster

A Beijing Air Pollution FAQ

Two photographs of the The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) at the Temple of Heaven taken 48 hours apart last summer. Welcome to my world.

Two photographs of the The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) at the Temple of Heaven taken 48 hours apart last summer. Welcome to my world.

At 6:30 pm local time last night, Beijing issued its first ever “Red Alert” for air pollution. Under stringent new guidelines enacted this past March, a “Red Alert” calls for the closure of factories, construction sites, and, theoretically, schools. 50% of the cars will also be forced off the roads for the duration of the “Red Alert,” which is scheduled to last through Thursday.

Friends, family members, and other interested parties may wonder about our relative health and safety here in Beijing.  Here is a brief FAQ on the AQI*:

  • Are we concerned? We’re not THAT concerned about the Red Alert because, and this is where we do worry, it gets much, much worse than this. The Air Quality Index reading today is 300. Compared to the US, where a “bad” day is around 18, that may may seem horrifying, but when compared to last week’s 1000+ air-pocalypse** this is nothing.
  • Why a Red Alert now and not last week when the air REALLY sucked? Good question. In sports terms, this is a make-up call. The Beijing Municipal Government was widely mocked last week for not issuing a Red Alert when a toxic miasma of doom settled over the city for three days. Instead they issued the less severe “orange” alert. Frankly, many people (raising hand) thought that the Red Alert was a myth. It was on the books sure, but government officials — who frankly hate anything that prevents them from driving their mistresses around in fancy cars or might cause delays in their brother-in-law’s construction boondoggle — would actually take this final step. Turns out I was wrong. After the royal ass reaming the municipal government received last week (or as royal an ass reaming as one can get in a society where the state still keeps a tight lid on the media and expressions of online dissent) the Municipal Government finally pulled out the red card.
  • Why is Beijing so polluted anyway? There are many factors including the prevalence of coal-fired plants in North China for electricity and heating. Beijing is also cursed a bit by geography. It’s surrounded on two sides by mountains and when the wind doesn’t blow (or blows in the wrong direction) the air here tends to just sit and the miasma steadily builds. It’s not unlike the problems Los Angeles had in the 1970s and for similar topographical reasons.
  • Any other complications to this Red Alert? Well, thank god I don’t work for a school. There was A LOT of confusion last night around the city among teachers and parents. The official government text message “suggested” the closure of schools but nobody knew what the hell that meant. The Ministry of Education stepped in later in the evening to stop the madness and clarified that schools would be closed Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Hey kids! How exciting…it’s a Smog Day! Unfortunately, many schools and teachers received the notice quite late. According to The Beijinger website, some international schools are open for classes (of course many of the international schools have also invested a gajillion dollars in air filters and domed playgrounds for just such an emergency) while other schools are suspending classes but making teachers come to work. Good times!
  • What about you and YJ? Personally, I plan to work at home as much as possible over the next few days while surrounded by my energy-guzzling air filters. I wear a mask when it hits certain levels, although I know I should wear a mask more often than I do. The air quality is also one of the reasons why we haven’t had kids yet. I figure there’s not too much that Beijing’s air can do to my body and lungs that I didn’t willingly do to myself in college…and points after. But a kid wouldn’t be volunteering to live in this environment and I want my children to grow up being able to run more than a few feet without requiring an oxygen mask.
  • Any bright side? Well, at least the government seems to be taking this seriously and any policy which requires a 50% reduction in automobile traffic in Beijing — if only for few days — can’t be all bad. Apart from cutting the emissions from the cars, this also means 50% fewer drivers out there trying to a) drive a car down a sidewalk; b) hitting the gas at cross walks to avoid having to stop for annoying pedestrians or c) making an illegal right turn across six lanes of traffic.  If I could see more than ten feet in front of me and I wasn’t worried that my lungs would spontaneously combust in the first 20 minutes, it would be a great day for riding my bike.
  • What does the future hold? While it can tough to believe on a day like this, the air in Beijing is getting much better. It’s just, as the saying goes, that when it’s bad, it gets really, really bad. Pollution is the great equalizer: rich or poor, everybody breathes the air. That makes it a political problem for the Chinese government, which has a healthy fear of issues which can link different social groups or geographic regions together in common cause. There are also, to be fair, many in the local and national government who are legitimately concerned about the effects of air pollution on the general population, especially for children. Unfortunately, I’m guessing these do-good nudniks are routinely shouted down at meetings by other officials whose job it is to keep the economy humming. You get the feeling that each day China’s president walks outside his villa in Beijing, takes a deep breath and exclaims: “Smells like GDP to Xi!”

In the meantime, we’ll be putting a mask on our dog and taking short, shallow breaths. Good news is that the winds are coming Thursday and all of this crap will be eventually get gently blown away in the general direction of…Oregon.


*Air Quality Index.

**Also the name of a beer from local brewing company Jing-A.