Beijing is once again blanketed in a thick coat of pollution today. Although the city’s air quality has always been atrocious, this last month has been particularly bad. The Chinese press reported today that during the whole of January Beijing has only enjoyed five days free of what they call 雾霾 (wùmái), which literally means “fog and haze”, but is understood to refer to smog caused by pollution.
A few weeks ago, on the weekend of the 12-13th of January, air pollution indexes in Beijing (and many other regions of China) reached unheard of new heights, pushing the authorities to suggest that children and the elderly stay indoors. It was so bad that I actually developed a slight sore throat, which I think was a result of the pollution. Many others had similar complaints. Visibility was low, and quite a few people claimed there was a kind of burning smell in the air, although I must admit that I didn’t notice it myself. (Below, the view from my window on the 13th of January).
A few days later some welcome snow seemed to have improved matters by washing away some of the foul air, but since yesterday air pollution levels have skyrocketed again. The main impact this has on my life is that I have to walk to work instead of cycling, so as to avoid breathing in more of the polluted air than necessary. More people than usual are wearing little surgical masks on the street, but I don’t as I am aware that they are fairly useless in keeping the pollutants out of your lungs.
Fortunately I will be leaving Beijing on Friday and going home for a two week holiday. That is, as long as my flight isn’t cancelled because of the low visibility, something which happened to sixty flights yesterday. Meanwhile, I can take comfort from the knowledge that British cities used to be just as bad during the Industrial revolution, as the Chinese government's ideologues love reminding you.
The Chinese press claimed today that the Beijing authorities are taking drastic temporary measures to lessen the pollution, including suspending the activities of 103 polluting factories around the city and of construction sites which produce dust. It is clear however that structural economic changes would be needed to address the underlying issue, and it is dubious that there is the political will to implement them.
Below is a photo of a “performance art” show put on by a group of artists in the city of Hefei, which has also been affected by the abnormal air pollution. The title of the show translates as “Resist the toxic smog. Make low carbon trips. Give me a clean world back.” Of course both the title of the show and the placards held up by the performers were sufficiently innocuous not to incur in the wrath of the authorities, neither blaming the government nor addressing it directly.
(the slogans say "protect the world" and "resist the toxic smog, give me a clean world back")