Curing the China Cough

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From my colleague Jodi Xu, some thoughts on Beijing’s temporary car ban, which was announced yesterday:

In one week Beijing expects to have some clearer skies and emptier streets. This is by far the best news I’ve heard recently, even better than someone telling me the price of pork is going to go down.

Officials announced yesterday that from August 17 to 20, almost half of Beijing’s 3 million cars will be banned from driving. During these four days, cars with odd numbered plates will be allowed on the roads on Aug. 17 and 19, while even numbered plates get Aug. 18 and 20. (Police, emergency, embassy and public transit vehicles are exempt.)

Some 1.3 million cars will come off the street, putting the total closer to what it was like when I came to Beijing five years ago. Beijing’s automobile exhaust level was much lower then. Now, according to People Daily online, the city has become “the biggest car exhaust emission area in the world.”

Beijing always had sandstorms. But in the “good old days,” as long as I struggled through to spring, the air was generally good from May until the next winter. I used to feel spoiled to have so many clear and often sunny days up in Beijing, especially coming from the country’s south, where it can rain for weeks on end.

But now, a recently arrived colleague from Hong Kong suffers from a chronic cough. An intern from the U.S. got a cold two weeks into the Beijing summer. My boss’s wife coughed for months after arriving from Malaysia. I rode my bike last winter for two weeks and started coughing. The China Cough, like an infectious disease, spreads easily.

So when the news about the temporary car ban came out, I began to picture the blue sky I’ve been missing. Government officials say that it will be a test to see the extent to which car exhaust contributes to the poor air quality in Beijing. It will be a challenge for the city’s public transportation system to handle hundreds of thousands of additional passengers. But if that works out, Beijing needs to do this more often.