What’s it like to live in Beijing during the “red alert” for smog?

What’s It Like to Live in Beijing During the “Red Alert” for Smog? 

What’s It Like to Live in Beijing During the “Red Alert” for Smog? 

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Jan. 6 2016 7:18 AM

What’s It Like to Live in Beijing During the “Red Alert” for Smog? 

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A Chinese woman looks at her phone through the smog in Tiananmen Square on Dec. 9, 2015, in Beijing.

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

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Answer by Karen Ma, author and lecturer, lived a combined 25 years in Japan and China:

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I could feel the terrible smog getting into my throat and lungs recently, when I went teaching and when I had to go to my kids school. And yes, my kids' school is one of the few that didn't shut down despite the “red alert” warning, much to their disappointment. I guess the school wants to remind us that they'd spent tons of money on an indoor air-safe dome, precisely for days like today. So why let it go to waste?

And as I came home, I could taste the bad air, even with my mask on. Seriously, the smog seems much worse in recent days, even though the concentration of PM2.5 had been much higher the previous week. How is this possible?

When I got on the bus this morning, everyone was wearing masks. We passed by lines after lines of tall trees shrouded in a think blanket of dusty smog. It looked rather like the aftermath of an earthquake. On quite a few of trees I saw nests, but there was not a single bird to be seen. Just how many birds are dying in this environment? I had to wonder. These days, I find myself wishing for strong winds in the capital, and yes, even if it means bitter cold weather and severe wind chill factor because that's the only hope we dwellers in this city have for a chance of seeing some clear skies. (Here's a map that shows the wind patterns that are bringing the pollution to Beijing, from Greenpeace analysis using the U.S. NOAA Hysplit model. This map was originally included in a Washington Post article about the red alert.)

And while I loathe days like this, I don't agree that Chinese people today stick their heads in the sand like ostriches, as some seem to imply. They have a much higher awareness than ever before, and they intend on exerting enough pressure on the government to bring about changes, much like how the red alert was issued because of paramount pressure from citizens.

As Ian Johnson pointed out in his article in the New York Review of Books, “Why Pollution Is Good for China,” Chinese people are becoming more aware that the factories that have driven the country's ecnoomic growth have destroyed the environment. “Think of it as another example of China’s slow-motion rising consciousness—the cumulative effect of better education, more money, and more awareness,” he writes. “The government can gloss over rights abuses. It can conduct secretive trials of prominent activists. But it cannot easily hide this kind of air, or blame it on foreigners. And it realizes that if it is seen to be dealing with the issue, the political fallout will be minor.”