Beijing Chokes on Record Pollution, and Even the Government Admits There’s a Problem

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Alexander F. Yuan / AP

A woman wears a mask while walking in a park on a hazy day in Beijing on Jan. 14, 2013

This weekend, my family barricaded itself behind closed doors, with only the briefest of toilet breaks for our dog. As the air pollution in Beijing reached record highs, the view from our 16th-floor downtown apartment dwindled to something more akin to a sandstorm in Afghanistan. Air purifiers that cost upwards of $1,000 ran at full throttle. Still, the haze permeated our living room, with pollution levels some 40 times what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe. Our kids climbed on the sofa and played make-believe, pretending they were on a slow boat from China to Thailand, where they were born.

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On Jan. 14, Beijing authorities held a press conference to address what English-speaking residents have dubbed the Airpocalypse. Zhang Dawei of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau blamed the dirty-dishwater-hued haze on a toxic combination of coal-fired power plants, heavy industry, vehicle emissions and a lack of wind to clear the air. To tackle the smog, the local government has ordered some factories and construction sites to idle, while certain government vehicles have been banned from the roads. At the press conference, Zhang added that the situation was even worse in some of Beijing’s suburbs. We already know that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China, according to the World Bank. Figuring that more than 100 million people in China (including 20 million or so in Beijing) breathed unsafe air last weekend didn’t make me feel any better.

Previously, the official reaction to bad-air days has tended toward denial or wounded aggression. We have been told by official Chinese media that Beijing air has gotten better over the past 14 consecutive years — a statement that strains credulity. Chinese officials have also grumbled about foreign meddling due to the U.S. embassy in Beijing’s pesky habit of doing its own monitoring of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, rather than the larger PM 10 measurement that the Chinese government had until recently used. Yet some health experts believe the finer particles are even more dangerous for our lungs than the bigger ones. A study co-sponsored by Peking University last year found that about 8,500 premature deaths linked to pollution occurred in four Chinese cities, including Beijing.

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Which brings us to the current pall hanging over the capital. Some international agencies consider PM 2.5 readings over 25 per cubic meter as unsafe. The U.S. embassy monitor in Beijing, using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-quality index that factors in PM 2.5 measurements, considers anything above 301 as “hazardous.” In fact, the American yardstick for measuring pollution doesn’t extend above 500. So how did the U.S. system cope last weekend in Beijing with air-quality readings that regularly topped 700 and reached 886 for PM 2.5? “Beyond index,” read the description on the U.S. embassy’s Twitter feed. What was there to say when air pollution had extended so far beyond “hazardous”?

It’s only when I go overseas and return to Beijing that I realize how choking the Chinese capital remains. Wherever I go, whether it’s Delhi or Hong Kong or L.A., I marvel at the clear skies, even as locals complain about their polluted air. Then, after a few days of reimmersing myself in Beijing’s muck, I calibrate my expectations. Maybe it’s fog, not smog, I think, when I open the curtains each morning. It can’t be that bad, can it?

But the current situation is that bad, and it’s likely to remain that way until winds clear out the pollution later in the week. Beijing aims to be a world-class city, and its desperation to be considered in the pantheon of great metropolises like London or New York is palpable. There is an undoubted allure to the capital of a country that has witnessed the greatest economic expansion in history. Beijing thrums with new money and big hopes. Yet the city’s aspirations are inhibited by everything from an authoritarian government that blunts innovative thinking to food-safety scares and, yes, the smothering pollution. Thousands of rich Chinese have secured exit plans from Beijing; the capital counts only 1% of its population as foreign-born, despite the city’s global ambitions.

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Meanwhile, our younger son stayed home from school today with a respiratory ailment. He’s had a low-grade cold for more than a month now, an illness that got better when we left the country for a week. Now we’re back in Beijing, and our 3-year-old speaks with the raspy growl of a chain-smoking blues singer. “We’re very busy these days,” says a respiratory doctor at Chaoyang Hospital, who noted a “dramatic increase” in the number of patients her department has treated over the past few days. Beijing is suffering its coldest winter in nearly three decades, leading people to turn up their heat — and, therefore, burn more polluting coal. The city just can’t catch a break.

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing