What It Feels Like Inside China’s “Airpocalypse”

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Oct. 28 2013 12:07 PM

Blogging From the Cloud

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A different kind of cloud: This picture taken on June 5, 2013, shows vehicles under heavy smog in Beijing.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing, where I’m currently staying, has unfortunately become somewhat famous for its air pollution, but I’ve apparently arrived at a particularly bad time. Today was what the U.S. embassy classifies as “Hazardous." You can see pictures of the cloud, or the "Airpocalypse” as some call it, from space here. Things could be worse. Schools, major roads, and an airport were shut down in the northern city of Harbin earlier this week when the smog got so bad that visibility was down to 60 feet.

Having lived in large cities for most of my life and having spent time in places like Moscow that are hardly known for air quality, I wondered how much I would really notice the difference here. But the closer parallel for what it feels like was probably earlier this summer when I was a few miles from massive forest fires in Idaho. (For one thing, the sun takes on the same eerie red glow.)

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Downtown Beijing is a much more attractive city than it’s usually given credit for, with plentiful green space and a lot of unique architecture. But thanks to the air quality, it often takes on a noirish, dystopian tinge. I’m actually a bit surprised filmmakers haven’t taken more advantage of the odd atmosphere here.

The air is a constant topic of discussion and complaint here, and reducing smog has been identified as a priority for the government. Though what strikes me the most is that the city seems to function just fine amid it all. There doesn’t seem to be any lack of Beijingers out and about shopping, enjoying the outdoors, and even exercising in air that I find a bit difficult to walk in for long periods. Granted, after a few weeks here I’d probably be used to it too, but I don’t really find that comforting.

I’d like to think that conditions like these are unique to China’s period of rapid development and moreover wouldn’t be tolerated in a democratic country with a freer press. But a part of me also wonders just how much pollution we will be willing to tolerate. As we head toward a series of irreversible climate benchmarks, it’s not exactly an encouraging question for environmentalists to ponder.

I’m currently in China on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center and the Better Hong Kong Foundation.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog.