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Beijing's Air Quality Catastrophe

Pollution has reached an all-time high, reminding us that China's economic growth has come at the cost of environmental disaster.


Through the year before the Olympics, while we were living in Beijing, I used to do daily views-out-the-window as a guide to the challenge the air-cleanup-people faced. For instance, here was a downtown area a few weeks before the opening ceremony:

Thumbnail image for BeijingSkies.jpg
Therefore I am sobered by news reports, official warnings, and messages from friends in Beijing, Xi'an, and elsewhere saying that the air pollution there is worse than it has ever been before. Here's a gauge: the picture above was taken back when the level of dangerous "PM 2.5" small-particulate pollution, as reported by the rogue @BeijingAir monitoring site on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing, was in the low-300s "hazardous" range. The readings in the past few days have been in the previously unimaginable 700s-and-above range, reported as "beyond index" by @BeijingAir. The worst I have personally seen in Beijing was in the high 400s, and that day I did not understand how life could proceed any further in such circumstances. The conditions this weekend have been much worse:


As a place-holder and set of reading tips, here are a few points for now:
  • This is yet another reminder of a fact impossible to forget when you're inside China but that often gets glossed over in credulous accounts of the New Chinese Century. Namely, that economic growth has come at the cost of environmental disaster, which is in turn (according to me) the most urgent and important of several limits and dangers the Chinese system faces. Every country as it develops has gone through its hellish-despoliation era, and of course the world as a whole is still at this stage. But the scale and speed of China's transformation make its case unique.
  • A little more than a year ago there was a mild-in-retrospect, frightening-at-the-time air emergency in Beijing, for which I gave background here, here, here. Earlier I wrote an article about what Chinese air had done (and not yet done) to me, according to a doctor.
  • It's worth reading the English version of a notable editorial in Global Times, a government-controlled and often hard-line paper. In days of yore, the Chinese press would downplay pollution reports -- calling it "fog," saying that foreigners were meddling in Chinese affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, etc. In context, this editorial is filled with quite eye-opening lines, which I have helpfully highlighted:

    "The public should understand the importance of development as well as the critical need to safeguard the bottom line of the environmental pollution. The choice between development and environment protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods...

    "The government cannot always think about how to intervene to 'guide public opinion.' It should publish the facts and interests involved, and let the public itself produce a balance based on the foundation of diversification.
    "The government is not the only responsible party for environmental pollution. As long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed."
  • The Global Times news story today (English version) also has a very different tone from what I remember during the last emergency. It wasn't that long ago that state media were pooh-poohing the "PM 2.5" readings as being meaningless for a country at China's stage of development. That's changed, as you'll see. Similarly from Xinhua.
  • Here's a wrap-up of a number of other Chinese and foreign reports, from the Sinocism blog.
  • For a through technical description of how the air-quality/air-pollution measures work in China and the U.S., see the Live from Beijing site. Vance Wagner, who runs the site, explains why this pollution episode is worse than the others. He also has examples of the way genuine public alarm about an unignorable disaster is altering the Chinese press-control system. (In short: social media taking the lead, and some state media realizing they have to respond -- as with this from People's Daily.) That's the connection between this story, and last week's Southern Weekend showdown, and other tensions within China: much of the society is becoming well-informed and sophisticated, in a hurry. The government's first instinct is just to bottle up and censor the information flow, but it has to be selective about where that will work and where it will simply look ridiculous. This is a longer saga, underway in earnest at least from the time of the SARS epidemic ten years ago. Here's a book for further reference, and an essay on the implications of Southern Weekend by the Chinese dissident Mo Zhixu. Plus this from the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
  • Additional discouraging photos from the WSJ's China Real Time site. The fifth in the series, a view I saw each day on leaving my apartment, especially got my attention.

I could spend all night adding items to the list, but that is surely enough for now. Each will lead you to dozens of other sources. Americans have had football and Golden Globes this weekend, but this week's Chinese news really matters in a different way.

Top image: A combination photograph of Beijing's skyline taken August 29, 2010 (top) and January 14, 2013 (bottom) on a heavy hazy day, in Beijing's central business district. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.


About the Author

  • James Fallows
    James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

    James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 35 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot.

    Fallows has won the National Magazine Award for his 2002 story “Iraq: The Fifty-First State?” warning about the consequences of invading Iraq; he has been a finalist four other times. He has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction for his book National Defense and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne (2012). He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the book Dreaming in Chinese. Together they have since 2013 been traveling across the United States for their American Futures project. They have two married sons.

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