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Christine Xu’s Blog

A Vacation Tainted by China's Toxic Air

Christine Xu

Posted January 16, 2014

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Beijing is once again blanketed by record-setting air pollution -- the highest since last January’s “airpocalypse.” Levels of PM2.5 reached 671 micrograms Thursday morning, dramatically reducing visibility and prompting commuters to don industrial-strength face masks. In the past year, severe air pollution has increasingly plagued cities not just in the north but all around China. Last month, reports of off-the-chart pollution in Hebei, Henan and Shaanxi Provinces and Shanghai – traditionally a city with clean air -- all made headlines.


                                              Shanghai, December 5, 2013

My colleagues and I have blogged extensively on China’s air pollution issues, but I had never experienced it personally -- until now. Don’t get me wrong. I have seen plenty of days in China with grey skies and no sun, but never has air pollution made my sinus burn.

I travelled to Xi’an in Shaanxi province from December 21 to 25 for vacation, hoping to bike along the historical city walls, climb the pagodas for a towering view of the city, and visit Mount Hua, one of China’s Five Great Mountains.

Instead, I was greeted with a thick blanket of grey air that enveloped our plane as soon as we landed.  When the smell of faint smoke filled my lungs upon exiting the aircraft, my friend from Beijing swiftly pulled out two face masks. She had been checking the daily Air Quality Index for Xi’an prior to our trip (a habit many Beijingers developed last year) and warned me about the severe pollution. But as the saying goes: seeing is believing.

The worst day was December 24, when PM2.5 levels neared 800, compared to the standard of 25 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization. On this day, being outside without a face mask smelled like being near a forest fire or in a smoke lounge, so even though the masks were rather uncomfortable (imagine wearing swimming goggles around your cheeks), we didn’t dare take them off.     


                                                 Xi'an, December 24, 2013 

Xi’an is a city with an incredible amount of history. It was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the capitol of China for many dynasties, and home to the Terracotta Army. It is also home to thousands of Hui people, an ethic group in China that is predominantly Muslim. The cultural intersection of Muslim, Buddhist and Chinese and its influence on food and architecture was fascinating to see. But frankly, with pollution this severe, it left us with few sights to truly appreciate, and a sour impression of the city.

The Great Mosque.jpg

                    Our visit to the Great Mosque in Xi'an, complete with face masks

That is a tragedy. What good is it if all of the historical cities and natural beauty in China are covered by haze? What good is staggering economic growth if the air is unbreathable, the cities unlivable?

The consequences of pollution are staggering. Environmental degradation costs an equivalent of 9 percent GDP for China. But even more startling is that air pollution reduces life expectancy by 5.5 years in northern China. After last January’s “airpocalypse” thrust China’s air pollution woes onto the world stage, tourism has been declining, expats have been leaving, schools have been closing (to protect vulnerable children), and air and vehicular traffic have been regularly stalled by low visibility.  

While China has passed a host of aggressive regulations in response, recent news reported China to be behind in reaching its pollution reduction targets set under the 12th Five Year Plan, while skeptics question the efficacy of the measures taken to tackle air pollution. Peng Sen, Vice Minister of China’s top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said that China should try “all possible means” to reach those targets in the next two years.

We will see in 2014 and beyond what types of concrete steps China takes to achieve its pollution reduction goals. Though, a major challenge will continue to be setting effective political and economic measures to incentivize local officials to develop the economy without exploiting natural resources. In the past, local officials’ promotions were based primarily on two things: economic growth and curbing social unrest. Now, President Xi is trying to steer them away from pursuing economic growth at all costs. Yet, details lack on how this will be implemented and how an official’s conservation record will be measured; meanwhile, the Ministry of Environmental Protection continues to be understaffed and largely toothless.

When I asked what the locals in Xi’an thought of the air pollution, their responses were unanimous: “Yes, the pollution is really bad, but nowadays, it seems like all of China suffer from it.” Indeed, air pollution is not just a problem for Beijing anymore. In fact, pollution has become the main cause of civil discontent and protests in China. One positive trend already taking place in the New Year is that China is adding an additional 87 cities to provide hourly air quality data, which the media, government, and public will all be watching very closely. Additionally, China is now requiring 15,000 of its biggest factories to publicly and continuously report their air emissions and wastewater discharges.

These are critical steps taken by the Chinese government at improving transparency and pollution information disclosure. The challenge now is for China to make noticeable improvements quickly enough before public patience runs out. 

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