The economy of China has risen mightily, but this is the result of a Faustian bargain that has seen pollution rise precipitously. Beijing is surrounded by mountains that trap the soot-laden air. Beijing and other cities in northern China have recorded their worst air pollution readings ever. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 656,000 Chinese people died prematurely in 2007 due to air pollution.
A soupy haze blankets Beijing for days on end. Almost all Beijingers have installed the Air Quality Index app developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency to their smartphones, which they check daily. Residents often wear surgical masks and purchase air filtration equipment. The elderly, young and ill have been advised to reduce the time they spend outdoors, and the number of ill people is growing due to depressed lung function, respiratory problems, premature births, birth defects and cardiovascular disease. Hospital admissions rise sharply on smoggy days. Sickness and stay-indoors alerts reduce productivity. Rivers adopt all manner of crazy hues due to pollution. In January, levels of particulate matter rose to nearly 40 times World Health Organisation limits. Flights can be cancelled. Newcomers to the city usually develop the Beijing Cough, and the term has gone viral on social media.
The smaller is an air pollution particle, the more dangerous it is. These particles are measured by the PM2.5 index, which gauges particles of 2.5 microns or less, with a micron being 3.94 × 10-5 inches. Such particles are dangerous as they’re sufficiently small to penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream. In the United States, a value over 100 is regarded as unhealthy, while 300 is hazardous and the index stops at 500. The US Centers for Disease Control found that the reading for 16 airport smokers’ lounges was 166.6, while the norm in Beijing is between 300 and 400. On very bad days, Beijing has a value of more than 500, and it can go as high as 755, sometimes being too high to be read. In US cities, it’s rare for the reading to go above 300, and that only occurs during forest fires.
Trans-national companies are finding it harder to send people to Beijing. The son of one US businessman posted to Beijing asked, “Dad, when you were growing up, did you ever have PE outdoors?” A Russian couple, the Markovs, moved out and relocated to Malaysia, with Makeev Markov, who runs an export business in Beijing, declaring, “Beijing’s air got worse in the last year, and this winter was especially bad.” He gave further detail: “We feel drowsy, we get headaches, we cough. We even noticed differences in the baby’s behavior, as she gets cranky and doesn’t sleep well.” A high-ranking lawyer and a senior technical professional employed by German car companies insisted on being repatriated.
Max Price, a partner of Antal International China, remarked, “When I speak to my international colleagues, their first questions are never about how business is going or how I am doing personally. They always ask about the pollution.” It helps not that rents are up, high prices are charged for low-quality goods, traffic is forever worsening, and there’s the small matter of H7N9 bird flu. Foreigners, usually Americans, ask for danger money of about 10 percent of salary if they are to be posted to Beijing, a phenomenon more common to locations such as Angola and Nigeria.
This pollution has had an extremely visible impact. Although a new policy allows people from 45 countries to stay in China for 72 hours sans visa, the number of tourists in Beijing was down by 14 percent in the first half of 2013, a five-year low. Lu Yong, the director of the Beijing Commission of Tourism Development, cited “frequent air pollution” as the principal cause. China is the third-largest tourist destination in the world.
Even the jingoistic Global Times newspaper exclaimed, “If we continue this way of development instead of adjusting it, the long-term damage will be serious.” Things are so bad that the Chinese government is taking action. The Ministry of Environmental Protection is effecting its most stringent plan ever to reduce air pollution by 2017, the Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (2013-17), which is backed by 1,700bn yuan of spending. Vehicle usage is likely to be restricted, as it accounts for around 30 percent of the air pollution in Beijing. Some industries will be banned from the city. The number of bicycles available for rent will be doubled to 25,000, with plans to double that again. The output of natural gas-driven power plants will be increased to reduce dependency on coal power.
Beijing isn’t even in the top 10 most-polluted cities in China. If you think it’s bad, you should see Lanzhou and Urumqi.
Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”