China is a notoriously difficult country for outsiders to get a handle on, but two things are immediately obvious the second you exit the airport. One, that the country is undergoing an unprecedented level of economic growth. Two, the country is in the midst of an ecological catastrophe. You literally breathe in both of them.
Despite all I had read before going to China last month, I was a bit blasé about Beijing’s famous smog. I’ve lived in cities all my life and once spent a few months in Moscow—a place not exactly known for its pristine air quality. Surely, for a three-day visit, it couldn’t be that bad.
Unfortunately, my trip—a journalism fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center and the Better Hong Kong Foundation—happened to coincide with one of China’s worst smog episodes of the year: a giant cloud over most of China visible from space. Distances became difficult to judge, and the city’s famous downtown glowered menacingly out of the haze. On the ground in Beijing, conditions were what the U.S. Embassy classified as “hazardous,” meaning: “Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low.”
Thankfully, most of my agenda involved conversations with officials in climate-controlled offices, but whenever we were outside—or riding a minibus though the capital’s bumper-to-bumper traffic—the cloud would hit like a wall, drying my throat and making my eyes water. A slight lingering cold that I brought with me from Washington soon turned into a full hacking cough. It felt less like any urban environment I had ever been in than earlier this summer when I was a few miles away from massive forest fires in Idaho.
Things could have been worse, of course. I could have been in the northern city of Harbin, where the smog was so bad that schools, airports, and major roads were shut down. Or I could have come in January when the air in Beijing was so bad it broke the air quality index.
Beijingers, or foreigners who’ve spent significant amounts of time in the city, will undoubtedly think I’m just soft. Judging by the elderly women practicing tai chi the city parks and Lycra-clad yuppies out jogging—seriously—locals don’t seem too fazed anymore. But evidence suggests pollution is one factor making it difficult to attract international talent to the city. What’s worse, prolonged exposure to smog at this level—particularly among children—can have lifelong medical effects. The World Health Organization has classified air pollution as a leading cause of cancer.
The Chinese government appears to be taking the problem seriously. The number of coal plants under construction has tapered off—though 363 are still being built—and they are being moved farther from major cities. Following recent outbreaks of pollution, air quality monitoring systems have been put in place, and the central government has begun to name and shame the cities with the worst air quality.