在北京大口呼吸 – Breathing in Beijing – English

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Before reading this short article concerning air quality, I would like to recommend another text to the readers , published in 2006 in《时代》(Shi Dai) weekly magazine: “Breathing in Beijing is not easy”. I liked it so much that even though it was written already more than 5 years ago, I decided to quote some fragments of it here. Therefore, I would like to express my gratitude to the author.

The last week of October looked like a real “devil week”. The dark sky over Beijing looked like it was preparing for the visit of devil. The black clouds seemed to shout: “the Armageddon is coming!” The people on the street resembled ghosts made of fog and shadows. It was the most depressing week since I moved to Beijing a decade ago. I felt like I was in a dream, when you desperately want to rescue yourself from drowning, but all you can find to hold your body on the surface of water is a thin straw. In the article from 2006 I mentioned in the beginning, the author vividly describes his impressions: “First, I felt a tickling in my throat and soon after the monster sat on my chest. Some Beijingers say: as soon as the red leaves appear on the Great Wall, you can hear the first symptom of Autumn: the sound of dry cough, which makes you afraid to take a deep breath, as it causes piercing pain in the lungs”. The pollution index might be different now, but the pain index is still more or less the same.

The complaints  about air quality must have been stopped, since the Environmental Protection Department reported the pollution was just “mild”. “The 21st Century Report” editorial commented: “Air pollution in Beijing is becoming more and more frustrating. The worst thing is, the Beijing Municipal Government  together with Environmental Protection Department did not take any position; the government’s agenda looks like the problem has never occurred”.

I really admire the patience of the people. It reminds me of these lines from “The Teahouse”: “The Japanese are powerful, they can stand what we cannot”. Actually, the Americans were the first who could not bear this. After several years of monitoring the air in Beijing, the U.S. Embassy described it on their Twitter account in two words: “crazy bad”. Some people claim that the air pollution index went far beyond the range of measurements, however it does not necessarily have to be true. This time, the Beijing  Environment Monitoring Department did not ignore it, publishing another report, contradicting the American one.

Concerning the Americans, are they more subtle on this matter than Chinese? I believe so. The article from 2006 is more direct: “After a few weeks of coughing, my wife complained it became painful. The doctor said she was coughing so much that her rib cartilage was ripped apart.” In fact you should consider yourself lucky that your rip bones did not crack”, he added. Thanks God, we have never heard of anyone whose ribs were broken because of coughing, just like in a novel >>Xiáng lóng shíbā zhǎng<<”.

So what is in this smog? All kinds of materials, including: exhaust emissions, factory gas (as a lot of factories which closed during Olympic Games have now reopened), dust from building sites. We can even blame the smoke from roasted lamb meat.  We cannot also ignore the fact  that there was no wind for about 10 days. One Beijing official claimed that the air pollution depends on two aspects: the first is the level of gas emissions, and the second is air circulation. Some web users joked later that in order to reduce air pollution, we should rely mainly on the wind.

I am not sure if I understand what that Beijing environmental officer meant. Their research methods are not the same as those of the U.S. Embassy. While Chinese statistics do not include particles smaller than 2,5 micron, the American one does and this is why their report was so scary. Well then, I assume these were not lies, however the question is whether those particles smaller than 2,5 micron can enter human lungs? Can we detect only the units big enough to disturb respiratory tracts?  I mean, was he trying to suggest that trachea is more important than the lungs?

The article continues: “In theory , Beijing is not the most polluted Chinese city. Sometimes it is not even included in the Chinese “top ten”. Moreover, among the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 15 are Chinese”. Can this data make environmental officers sigh with relief? The paper says later: “The biggest hope of Beijing residents is the Olympics in 2008. It is no exaggeration in fact to say that for the Chinese authorities it is an extremely  important international meeting ”. Even foreigners knew that  Beijing must make the air cleaner in order to hold an event. The predictions were true, 2 weeks before the Olympics started, the blue sky with white clouds looked like it had been freshly washed. It was during the Opening Ceremony I have heard about the artificial rain for the first time. Thanks to that, the city authorities removed the rainy clouds from above the Bird’s Nest as easily as they did hawkers.

The article recalls an example: “If we can learn from experience from the recent Sino-African forum, it is very possible that Beijing air quality will get better before the Olympic Games”. During the summit, only 500.000 official cars were allowed to drive and the authorities announced that 400.000 residents “voluntarily” abstained from driving during that time. The air pollution index slowly moved down and finally, on the last day of the summit, it decreased to a level considered normal for the rest of the world. However, as the next day traffic returned to the regular chaos, the air pollution index also came back to its normal “unhealthy” level. This example shows that the government is indeed a magician when it comes to air. Expecting solution rather from the wind than the authorities might be more down-to-earth.

The last paragraph of the article states: “The Chinese government ensures: this will be a successful Olympics. If necessary, the authorities will stop the traffic in the city as well as close the factories for 3 weeks so as to make the air cleaner. But except for those few weeks we still have to breathe the toxic air”. Finally, I would like to point out that the U.S. Embassy report was not fully objective as it mentioned only the air around the Embassy. It is located in the city center together with other governmental agencies. Many head offices and office buildings are also within the third ring. In order to lessen the air pollution it is necessary to “demolish” them. I live in Tongzhou. A few years ago I heard Beijing Municipal Government wanted to move over. The property price level shook– at the beginning of the last year the value of my house located in East Sixth Ring rose to 30.000 yuan per square meter and now it has dropped again to 15.000. Beijing Municipal Government – are you finally moving in or not?

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org