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Can China's Toxic Air Clear a Fog of Lies?

Last week the air in Beijing was so toxic that officials forbid school children from playing outside. Pharmacies sold out of protective masks. Emergency rooms hit capacity day after day with coughing Chinese complaining of respiratory problems, itchy eyes, and blurred vision.

At its worst the AQI, or air quality index, as measured by the US Embassy, hit 755. Elsewhere in northern China, the government’s own readings (based on a similar AQI index scale) climbed even higher. Online reports coming in from Hubei Province cited numbers as high as 900 or even 1,000. Neither the US nor the Chinese AQI index has a description or warning for pollution that is above 500. When it was designed, the idea that pollution would ever get that bad was unthinkable. But according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a reading of 301 or greater triggers a health warning of “emergency conditions.”

And yet, on the surface, it did not feel like an emergency in Beijing. Chinese, even expats, have grown wearily used to the bad air here. There were no angry lines outside pharmacies demanding more masks for the people. Traffic seemed no better or worse to me. In perhaps the most glaring illustrations that filthy air is accepted as the norm, I saw one apparently unconcerned citizen jogging while others took cigarette breaks.

Like many expats living in Beijing with children, my husband and I kept our two small sons indoors the entire weekend. Our top-of-the-line BlueAir purifiers, one for each room in the apartment, were on full blast. We exhausted all board games, art activities, baking, and iPad episodes of Handy Manny and Blue’s Clues before we all fell asleep Sunday night. We hoped we would wake to blue skies.

Monday morning dawned smoggy and dull. While the AQI would oscillate over the week, by Friday afternoon it was back up to 406. My personal low point came on Wednesday. It was dress-down day at my boys’ school. Something about the two of them in their superhero t-shirts, Spiderman shoes, and 3M protective masks—and knowing they would not be able to play outside for the fifth day in a row—broke my heart.

Ma Jun, China’s leading environmental awareness crusader and the founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), has known the same feeling for some time. Over the course of an afternoon spent with Ma Jun and his team during Beijing’s bad air week, he told me that for years his heart has been breaking not for the children kept indoors but those allowed outside. He adds that ordinary Chinese don’t want to believe the government would allow such dangerous air to permeate the lungs of its precious children.

“They try to convince themselves it is okay,” Ma Jun said. “No one wants their life or their work to be disrupted.”

They tell themselves it is fog, Ma Jun told me. And he attributes the complacency to the government, which until recently did little to inform its citizens otherwise. Until 2012, for example, there were no official monitoring systems in place across the country to measure the air quality. In part due to pressure from the IPE, there are now dozens of AQI radars across major cities and Chinese citizens have access to the data in near real-time online.

Ma Jun is in part responsible for this change. The IPE gathers this data and presents it in a user-friendly format on its site. But even he was astounded at how aggressively and openly the Chinese government addressed the problem this last week. State television devoted newscasts to the bad air quality over the weekend and on Monday. And even the most nationalistic papers ran headlines calling for a solution.

The online community in China lit up with anxiety and anger, posting time lapse photos that showed Beijing under blue skies on one day and nearly invisible under a chemical cloud the next.

“This is the first time millions of residents on our country have been able to access some real time monitoring data released by the government,” he said. “The people feel so strongly, because now they understand: it is not fog. It’s smog.”

Throughout the week the most common explanation for China’s pollution problem has been the government’s obsession with explosive growth at all costs. From countless factories that operate at full tilt around the clock to the astronomical jump in car ownership in recent years to the incessant burning of coal—all without proper environmental safety standards in place. It is clear that China’s leadership has not prioritized the matter of air quality. And now it is a dilemma not without its ironies: For all China’s efforts to control the flow of information and the narrative across a broad spectrum of topics, the one issue that might finally compel reform by popular demand is the toxic one that is in plain view for all to see, taste, and smell.

But the air here is not only China’s problem. Part of Ma Jun’s work has been to pinpoint the international companies that violate even the weak and loosely enforced environmental standards in place. These include name brands the average American knows well: Apple, GE, Nike, and Wal-Mart. According to Ma Jun, most have agreed to work with his organization to correct problems in the supply chain. Wal-Mart, in particular, has been quick to adapt and improve; Apple far less so. But after ignoring requests by the IPE to discuss the topic for more than a year, Apple recently agreed to a third-party audit at one of its suppliers as suggested by the IPE.

When Ma Jun was my son’s age, he swam in Beijing’s rivers and strolled at dusk under breathtaking sunsets. The rivers are toxic now and seeing such sunsets are rare. China has come a very long way, but it has left much behind.

Toward the end of our afternoon together, Ma Jun removed his mask to ask me, “If the cost is our health, then what is the point?”  He glanced at a child walking by, hand in hand with an adult. Neither wore a mask. “If our air is not safe to breathe, our water is not safe to drink, our food not safe to eat, then what is the point?”

As the week without a clear day came to a close, I wondered the same thing. I was anxious to get home to my kids. Normally I would put on my mask and hop on my bike. But in the time I have taken to write this article the AQI climbed from 406 to 467. I’ll miss putting the kids to bed tonight, but I’ll spare myself a 10-minute bike ride that would leave my eyes itchy and throat sore. It’s not the kind of compromise I want to live with much longer. 

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