Last week on a business trip to Beijing, I woke up in my hotel room at my usual early hour, well before sunrise; a time normally reserved for military invasions, heart attacks and urgent cries from your four year-old that her tummy hurts, followed by the inevitable purge that makes her tummy stop hurting. I was sitting at my computer, doing emails when the sky outside started to lighten and faint outlines of buildings started to appear. However, as I glanced outside occasionally, I started to notice a strange sight outside my west-facing window … very tall, lumpy formations off in the distance, like a giant teenager had just run into his giant house and had dumped his giant jacket and backpack on the ground for his giant mom to give him a giant lecture about picking up after himself (it turns out that size has no influence on behaviors of teenagers. Who knew?). But what was slowly being revealed to me was not the result of a careless teenager of excessive side – it was mountains. Mountains of mountains, standing proudly in the morning mist, evoking the paintings of Tang Dynasty poets playing chess in the shadows cast by the rising sun.
And then it struck me … I haven’t seen the mountains outside of Beijing since I was actually IN those mountains with a client last year on a trek to the Great Wall. Normally, the mountains around Beijing are but a rumor and memory to those living IN Beijing because the excessive pollution makes seeing the building across the street a challenge, let alone the mountains 30 kilometers away. To say that Beijing is polluted is like saying that Edward Snowden can’t keep a secret – its impossible to emphasize enough the sheer truth of the statement. Right around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government started making a big deal about how many “blue sky days” there were because of the pollution control measures implemented to protect athletes and spectators alike. By most measures, pollution control at the time was a moderate success (though the authorities’ definitions of a “blue” sky seems rather color-blind at times).
There are scientists who have a poor enough social life so as to specialize in pollution (“Hi, I’m Bob, I study scum. What do you do? Hello? Hello??”) and they say that the main cause of the Beijing pollution is the exhaust of a squillion cars pushed by breezes from the ocean far to the southwest piling up against those picturesque mountains to the north. A steaming bowl of particulate matter. Every Beijing resident and their parakeet owns a car and insists on driving it into the city to work every day. The authorities tried to put controls in place a few years ago limiting cars on the road based on their license plates, odd numbered ones on certain days and evens on others. Instead of looking for alternatives in carpools or public transportation, the enterprising Beijingers with more money than sense simply purchased another car with the opposite plate so they had options on all days. A couple of pairs of shoes, I understand. Two coats? Ok. But two BMWs??
One day last year, Beijing registered an air quality index of over 800, a figure normally assigned to forest fires and coal mines. There was a color to the sky that doesn’t have a Pantone number but if a trained medical professional saw it on a scan of a human body, they would recommend that the owner of that body seek immediate medical attention. Take a deep breath and you’d chip a tooth. So to suddenly have a day so clear that one could see the mountains was a major shock to the system, as if you’d been living your life with a toothache and then, after a visit to the dentist, it didn’t hurt. You realized what awful circumstances you’d been living under in the first place
Now here in Shanghai we can’t boast that we have it much better. There are many a day when I look out my 25th floor apartment window and struggle to see more than a ten or twelve blocks away. But in Beijing, it’s a whole ‘nuther world … you’d struggle to see the ground from the 25th floor on some days. I ask my Beijing friends and colleagues if they mind it and I get the same response from hard-core Minnesotans when asked about the winter weather – a resigned shrug and a what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it sigh.
But secretly, I think the Beijingers like the fact that they can put up with the smog, like it’s some sign of moral superiority that they can breathe in tiny particles of grit that permanently damage their lungs. It something in the way that they try to take a deep breath without wincing and their eyes watering. They’ll change their tune in 20 years when the traffic will be twenty times worse when in addition to the cars, every pedestrian will be pushed around in an iron lung.