‘Airpocalypse’ in Beijing

Monday afternoon, the Beijing municipality issued its first-ever red alert for air pollution. The warning, the highest in a four-level system, expires at noon on Thursday.

During this alert, primary and secondary schools are closed, as are kindergartens. Individual cars are only allowed on the road on alternate days. Government offices must reduce car use by 30 percent. Public transportation operates on extended schedules. Heavy trucks must stay off the roads. All outdoor construction is stopped. Factories are required to close for two days. Fireworks and barbecues are banned.

The air in Beijing is now a dark gray. And it is deadly. PM2.5 readings, which measure the most hazardous particulates, exceeded 900 in recent days. The World Health Organization’s safe level is 25. In China, some 4,000 people a day die from bad air, according to one study.

Beijing residents speak of the situation as the “airpocalypse” or “airmageddon.” One performance artist, who goes by the name “Nut Brother,” actually created a “smog brick” by vacuuming up Beijing air with an industrial vacuum cleaner that he wheeled through city streets and public spaces. Satire in the capital is almost as dark as the atmosphere.

Citizens are angry that authorities did not declare a red alert last week, when there were five consecutive days of dense smog beginning November 27th. It’s a safe bet that authorities were reluctant to admit the severity of the situation. Xinhua News Agency, an official outlet, said the red alert came after an orange one (the second-highest level) but a yellow alert (one level down from that) was in effect on Monday, just hours before the declaration of the red one. In other words, public pressure likely forced the authorities to move from near the bottom of the scale to the top in almost one go.

Every year, the air in the Chinese capital seems to get worse. Can anything be done? For years efforts have been made to relocate heavy industry out of the Beijing municipality. More recently, the government has promised to close all coal-fired generating stations by 2017. There have been bold declarations by national and municipal leaders—even a “war on pollution” announced last March. 

There is only one thing missing: bottom-up pressure. Authoritarianism is preventing the change that everyone wants, and environmentalists know this. Take Ma Jun, perhaps China’s best-known activist not in prison. He is now talking about people mobilizing to support beleaguered environmental officials against polluters. 

That sounds fine in the pages of London’s Guardian newspaper, where you will find Ma’s important words, but don’t expect to read citizen calls for action in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship publication. In a democracy, citizens form groups, buttonhole officials, protest when they’re angry. In China, the party has recently begun an intensified campaign against nongovernmental organizations. People almost never get to meet those who rule them, and spilling out into streets is usually dangerous.

There is one solution to dirty air in China, however. It’s called a cold front. One of them is expected to arrive Thursday. More smog, however, is forecast for the capital beginning December 14th. 

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