China’s Persistent Pollution Problem

Pollution almost obscures Beijing's Birdsnest Stadium

Pollution almost obscures Beijing's Birdsnest Stadium


We were in Beijing just before the Olympics in August 2008, and upon arrival were greeted by Beijing’s biggest and most violent thunderstorm of the year. I’ve never seen rain in Beijing like that day. It was only after we got into our hotel and watched CCTV Channel 9 news that we found out the thunderstorm was man-made. Man vs Wild, specifically Peking Man. Chinese Peking Man wins this round. We enjoyed clean air for the day. The day after, I knew we had to leave the city. Even with manipulated air quality, Beijing has a real problem with air pollution.

___It’s not that I expected Canadian quality clean air when flying to Beijing. I recall riding my bicycle to downtown Beijing from Haidian, Beijing’s university district, spending a couple of hours downtown and returning to find my white shirt a pale shade of grey, accompanied by my coughing up blackened phlegm. Yes, it’s as nasty as it sounds. Every trip after I opted to always wear a kouzhao, an air filter of gauze that covers your mouth and nose. As well I always wore a coloured shirt. Though I knew it would do little, it was the least I could do to protect myself.

Welcoming the morning at Beijing's Birdsnest Stadium

Welcoming the morning at Beijing's Birdsnest Stadium

___Traffic was another surprise that hit us in Beijing. A 4 km taxi ride took 50 minutes, almost as fast as walking speed. The taxi simply could not move because of the volume of vehicular traffic. Surely when the Beijing government decided to allow private citizens the right to buy cars, they were also considering their impact on daily traffic patterns. Apparently not. Days later a new restriction to not allow cars to drive one day a week came into effect, with almost no visible impact. At least cyclists were moving.

___I recall looking out of my dorm room window at the yellow band in the sky that was known as “fengsha”, or “wind sand”. It is very fine airborne particulate that gets blown into Beijing in the spring from Mongolia. Mothers would wrap their little one’s heads with colourful handkerchiefs so they did not get sand in their eyes. Then they did the same to themselves. Off they would ride on their Feige bicycles. This yellow sand would get everywhere. No matter how much you cleaned, an hour later all surfaces would be again covered by a yellow film of dust. Ah, fond memories, when I didn’t know much and cared less. Still, Beijing’s dust was odd enough for me to take notice.

Breath this, Chinese comrades

Breath this, Chinese comrades

___It seems things have changed but not for the better. The yellow band is said to be less now, due to reforstation efforts surrounding Beijing. Instead the yellow has turned decidedly grey. While Beijing residents have been eschewing Feige for bicycle brands like Giant, cycling and walking in Beijing now is much more dangerous than before. You really need to watch you don’t get murdered by an errant taxi.

___In the years before and specifically the months preceeding the Olympics, China had specific plans to improve Beijing’s air quality, as they promised the world Olympic committees. Frankly I did not notice any appreciable difference when I was there. No matter what the Chinese government was saying about Beijing’s fog, international news sources and my nose and eyes were to discover the real truth: Beijing air is still pretty polluted. Due to the global economic slowdown it seems that idling polluting factories has improved Beijing’s air down to levels not seen in 10 years.

Do not worry, Comrades, this is only fog.

Do not worry, Comrades, this is only fog.

___I do worry about the long-term impact on the lungs of Chinese children and adults. Only time will tell if levels of asthma and other respiratory ailments will rise at the same rate as China’s economic growth. Polluted air hurts everyone, but can kill the very young, very old and very weak. While in Beijing breathing such terrible air quality, no amount of official Chinese press releases can convince you that the greyness you see and the thickness of air you feel on your skin is merely “fog”. The photos you see here are what I saw in Beijing. Even living a couple of years in this environment cannot be good for your health.

___Then again maybe rising levels of, say emphysema, will be attributed to China’s love of smoking, thus masking the effects of air pollution. At least China’s farmers are breathing clean air, unless they poison themselves with huge bongs and stinky cigarettes. Can nothing be done to protect Beijing’s air quality?

___Maybe the bright thinkers in China have already weighted the pros and cons of rapid economic growth, and have traded off negatives such as reduced air quality. Still I wonder if some of their economic profits were put to improving air quality and protecting “laobaixing” (the most common 100 surnames, commoners), would not the average people of China benefit the most?

Addendum: 2017 Oct 20 Pollution claims 1.8 million lives in China, latest research says

While the highest death tolls were reported mostly in Asia, the highest rates of pollution-related mortality were in Africa.

Here are the countries with the highest number of pollution-related deaths and the highest pollution-related mortality rates.

  • India: 2,515,518 (24.5 per cent)
  • China: 1,838,251 (19.5 per cent)
  • Pakistan: 311,189 (21.9 per cent)
  • Bangladesh: 260,836 (26.6 per cent)

source: CBC

Addendum: 2017 Oct 24 China’s New Antipollution Push Could Cool Its Growth Engine

3 thoughts on “China’s Persistent Pollution Problem

  1. David Ing

    The growth of cities is associated with industrialization. When I was in Beijing last year, I had the luxury of walking around the Haidian district on foot, and was amazed at the scale of buildings and green(?) space around them. Yes, Beijing is the capital city, so I guess it should be grand, but it’s not a very human scale.

    I’m afraid that the Chinese government may be following lessons of industrialization from the west. I don’t understand the politics well enough to understand whether making big cities bigger is a truly Chinese direction, or whether it’s reflection of a global one. Sustainability would suggest that encouraging a larger number of smaller cities to grow would be a better idea. China is a big country. I understand the benefits of Shanghai’s location as a port at the outlet of a river, but since Beijing is at the edge of a desert, it feels like development in another geographic location could be a good idea.

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