Absurdity, Allegory and China

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Holding Our Breath

December 5th, 2011 · 7 Comments

This morning I’m in pain. I take little comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one in Beijing suffering from the same symptoms: pounding headache, sore throat and burning eyes. It’s the air pollution that’s got us down, physically, spiritually, mentally and every other -ally I can possibly think of. I have my curtains drawn and my office door shut and an IQAir filter cranking away. But that’s still not enough to keep the filth of Beijing air out. Periodically I look out the window, but then quickly draw the curtains again. I just don’t want to look at what is happening outside. It’s disgusting. This past Friday it snowed, perhaps the most depressing snow I’ve ever seen. I thought, “If there were enough of it, would you let your child play in that?” I remember those early life moments of scooping up a handful of snow, eating it, rolling in it, coming home frozen wet and red. That wouldn’t happen in this place. @bokane expressed it best: “Signs you’ve been in Beijing too long: you look out the window onto a snowy morning and just assume that it’s ash of some kind.” When I saw what was falling from the sky on Friday I thought of kids eating snow and I shivered … in a Divine/Pink Flamingos sort of way. More snow is to come later this evening and tomorrow. It used to be just the yellow snow you’d have to warn the kids about, but in Beijing, it’s anything that falls from the sky and accumulates.

On November 22 I went to the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Airport to meet a friend who was to stay with us for a week. At 11:00 AM when she arrived the air was ‘Very Unhealthy.’ According to the air quality readings tweeted nearly every hour by the U.S. Embassy – much to the chagrin and protests of the Chinese government – the PM2.5 reading was 273. (PM2.5 is the invisible particulate matter that works its way into your lungs and does the most damage, a standard international measurement that the Chinese have, though they refuse to make their readings public. As we left the airport I told her that the smog would probably clear over the next few hours since the wind was predicted to rise. And rise it did, taking all the nastiness south that day. By 3:00 PM it was a ‘Good’ 39 and the wind was ripping. In fact it ripped so much that evening it ended up ripping part of the roof off Terminal 3, though one of the architects involved with the project said that substandard materials or installation – not design flaws – are likely to blame for wind blowing parts of the roof off Beijing’s three-year-old Terminal 3. And it’s not hard to believe that assessment. The wind was barely over 50 MPH, not enough to damage a properly installed roof at the world’s largest showboat airport, though enough to drive Beijing’s toxic air somewhere else. The air quality remained in the breathable range, below ‘Unhealthy,’ until the following evening: 11-23-2011; 23:00; PM2.5; 72.0; 155; Unhealthy.

For the next 116 hours (4 hours shy of 5 complete days) the air quality stayed ‘Unhealthy’ or above, before returning to what would be considered ‘healthy’ for anyone without respiratory problems, though not for sensitive groups. 11-28-2011; 19:00; PM2.5; 64.0; 148; Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. In other words for a 116 hour stretch Beijing air was deemed ‘Unhealthy’ or worse, and often the quality reading drifted into the ‘Very Unhealthy’ and ‘Hazardous’ ranges. Of that 116 hour stretch, 24 hours were deemed ‘Hazardous’, ranging from 301 to 393.

The days between then and now have not been all that different: a few ‘Good’ and ‘Moderate’ periods, though mostly ‘Unhealthy’ and above. The exception has been the period we are in at the moment. As I write the PM 2.5 readings have been pegged in the ‘Hazardous’ zone since yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, 12-04-2011; 16:00; PM2.5; 406.0; 438; Hazardous, more than 19 hours ago. A few hours after the air quality entered the ‘Hazardous’ zone it reached the unmeasurable range (what some have unofficially deemed “Crazy Bad”) @ 12-04-2011; 19:00; PM2.5; 522.0; 500; Beyond Index, which is somewhat akin to WWI trench warfare air. How far ‘Beyond Index’ was it? There’s no way of knowing that, though if the CN.gov folks do, they aren’t about to tell anyone. In fact I’m surprised they haven’t sniped the measurement machine on top of the U.S. Embassy, yet. They hate it. Recently there have been at least two smartphone applications that republish the hourly U.S. Embassy readings. But despite a rise in requests to come clean with the real information, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau has refused to make that data available. {In Chinese}

For more see The Ministry of Tofu’s Photos: Smog-shrouded China denies citizens right to know pollutant measurements. Also have a look at this photo taken at the Beijing Capital Airport last night by @kinablog who was on an Air China flight that was grounded due to the heavy smog.

Though Beijing is an international capital, the government has yet to learn how to responsibly deal with their people. My rough estimate is that at least 97% of the people who live in Beijing are Chinese, not expats. And as everyone knows, expats are whiners. We complain, because that’s what we do. We complain about staying here as this problem continues to worsen. And though I can hardly speak for anyone else, I do know someone close who has left, and we, her parents, will be leaving here in June at the end of contract. There are several reasons to leave, and general quality of 21 C. life issues are big (how can you be competitive when your internet connection is blocked, choked, and hobbled – my connection speed has regressed to 1995 dial-up speeds.) But breathable air has become the primary reason.

But this isn’t about us, China. This is about  the Chinese. The majority of people who are affected by this insane level of pollution are your parents and grandparents. But it will all catch up to you later. So before you start writing to me to call me what you guys sometimes call me, look at yourselves. This is damaging you and your families. It’s your health that’s being destroyed. Then if you still want to write a comment telling me to do things to myself that “just ain’t right,” in English that isn’t either, go right ahead. I’ll delete you as I always do while I’m still able to breathe.

Update December 5, 2011, 1900 CST
The irrepressible Global Times has just published Metrological authorities deny heavy fog is pollution. It is always difficult to know what to do with the Global Times. Reworking it into 4″ rolls and placing it in public latrines usually comes to mind, but they’re also digital, which means they last far beyond the first [s]wipe. My favorite lines are:

Zhang Mingying, a meteorological engineer at the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, told the Global Times on Monday that the recent fog is normal in terms of frequency during this time of year according to their monitoring.

“Heavy fog has occurred 6 times a year on average over the past 30 years and December’s fog was the seventh occurrence this year. Therefore, it is a normal climate condition in Beijing,” said Zhang.

I will not get into the classification of what is or is not normal, though I will say that periods of fog occur in Beijing with great frequency before winter sets in hard and after it loses it grip, which makes November/December and late February/March notoriously susceptible to catastrophic fog events. But when they happen the moisture in the air holds all those little particles that are floating about, which is what turns fog into smog. So, in a relatively pre-industrial China you could call it fog and get away with it. But in nowaday China, your early morning waking mouth tells the tale: it tastes like you’ve been breast-stroking through a pool of battery acid, and two cups of strong coffee hardly cuts the bitter tang. We generally call that pollution. In the world of real people we understand that fog catches all that shit and keeps it low to the ground. So, while fog may be the problem, in an uncontrolled environment like Beijing, it quickly goes “all pollution.” This is like Reader’s Digest science. To deny that the fog is pollution is like …ah, ah, ah … don’t use a fractured metaphor (which is what a simile is)! These guys don’t get metaphors unless it’s a real club and they can beat someone over the head with it. At any rate, the Global Times has shown their flame reddest ass. Makes you just want to pinch their little cheeks as you heave them into the miasma of their smog.

Tags: Beijing · pollution

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 George Han // Dec 6, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Yes, everything you write is true–the air quality in Beijing is very bad and the reporting on it equally bad. Yet, what can most of us do? After you tire of complaining, at least you can vote with you feet and move somewhere else although not in China where in most places you will only find more dirty air.

  • 2 jg // Dec 6, 2011 at 8:26 am

    You’re right, George, I can vote with my feet, and you can bet my feet won’t be staying in China. Fourteen (14) years will be enough. But this problem is fundamentally a Chinese problem. The only ones who can stop it are the people. How that can or will happen is up to you guys. How? Well I don’t know, though you folks know best how the system works (or doesn’t). Beijing added 1.5 million cars since 2008, on top of the 3.5 million they already had. It was not hard then to see that what we have now is what many of us imagined it would look like, though the reality of living in it on a day-to-day basis is a lot harder than I would have guessed. On days like the last few Beijing is not fit for human habitation, though he we are, feeling sick about it. All that expats can do is live here or, as you say, “Vote with our feet.” We cannot make any substance change to a system that dislikes us more than it does its own people. And seeing how they treat their own people is disturbing. I dont know what to tell you, but there is a very real problem that is causing very real sickness and death. I have a feeling that the bosses would say that it’s just the cost of development, that this is what we need to do to make China great. But we all know that it doesn’t have to be done this way.

  • 3 George Han // Dec 9, 2011 at 1:37 am

    One problem is that we want a higher standard of living, which for some includes owning a car–something that Westerners have enjoyed for generations. So do we want the luxury of private transportation or air polluted by auto exhaust? Given the increase in car numbers, the answer is obvious. Another problem, of course, is industrial pollution. Export and domestic consumption driven production also relate to a standard of living that in material terms continues to improve but deteriorates in other areas like air quality and the environment. In short, development is a very complicated issue that does not lend itself to any easy answers plus everything is complicated 100 or 1000 fold, compared to Western countries (past and present) based alone on the size of China’s population. As for influencing or changing our “system,” this is as difficult for us to do as say someone in the U.S. where the process is presumably designed to reflect its people’s wants and needs. Indeed, the “system” does have defects such as pollution-connected “sickeness and death,” no argument here except to point out that when you focus just on negative aspects you will naturally draw even more negative conclusions. Yes, in theory, there are other ways to do things but right or wrong China is already well down this path and to change directions is virtually impossible. Thank you for your thoughtful opinions.

  • 4 jg // Dec 9, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Thank you, George, for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. I think the “path” that China is on needs to be re-worked for the sake of public health. The U.S. has worked itself into a mess by building a dependency on the automobile. China is following that same path at the cost of the public’s health. (The China Daily just reported that the rate of lung cancer in Beijing has increased by 60% over the past decade.)

    Beijing has developed so fast that the public transportation system, growing though it is, is still not able to keep up with the demand. If you have a chance you should look at Wang Jun’s amazing work, Cheng Ji, which is now available in English, too, as Beijing Record. What has been lost and what continues to be lost is not recoverable. The dependence on the car is destroying the capital and the people who live in it.

    Where to go and what to do next is China’s dilemma. I truly hope they can figure a way out, though, if it is possible, it will not be easy path to take.

  • 5 Brenda // Dec 9, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Friends have asked me about the air quality during my visit and now I can refer them to this depressing day by day account — and to your always-insightful commentary.

  • 6 Anuanuann // Jan 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    The pollution in the whole week before Chinese New Year was untolerable, discusting, horrible! That’s when I decided to wear a face mask outdoors, and noticed how many others were also doing this. The facemasks are an efficient and visible method of expressing your opinion here. But then… come New Year, and magically the sky is blue and the sun is shining. I guess the factories were pumping extra efficiently BEFORE the holidays, in order to allow the break, so the weather would be fantastic during holidays, making all citizens happy…

  • 7 Smog Alert | Outside-In // Jul 9, 2012 at 9:05 am

    [...] with you this description of what it’s like in Beijing today.  It’s a post titled “Holding Our Breath” on the blog Absurdity, Allegory, and [...]

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