Why the rich breathe easier in China’s choking smog
Not all Chinese ‘breathe the same air and share the same destiny’
Spotting a rare blue sky after three days of choking smog, Sophie Gao took her two-year-old daughter outside to play in Beijing’s Shunyi district early this month.
But around 11am she felt the wind howling from the south and looked up. The blue sky was grey once again and she rushed to take her daughter home as the air filled with the smell of burning coal.
Their home is protected by air purifiers.
At the same time, courier Lu Wei, 27, was riding his electric tricycle, making deliveries in the capital’s Chaoyang district. He put on a face mask and continued his work, but after a while he took it off because it was hard to breathe under the mask.
That half day, on January 2, was the only blue sky Beijing people saw from December 30 to January 7. For nine days the capital was blanketed by thick smog, with levels of cancer-causing respirable suspended particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, known as PM2.5, exceeding 500 micrograms per cubic metre of air, well above China’s national standard of 35mcg and the World Health Organisation guideline of 10mcg.
As some internet users bitterly put, if there’s one thing that all Chinese, rich or poor, cannot avoid it’s the smog, as they “breathe the same air and share the same destiny”.
But do they?
When affluent Chinese, and even members of the rising middle class, can afford to flee smog-hit areas by flying to cleaner coastal cities in the south or even abroad, seek shelter in office buildings and homes protected by air purifiers, and buy expensive masks designed to keep out PM2.5 particles, the underprivileged struggle to make a living, fully exposed to the poisonous air.
A vital link in China’s online shopping frenzy, Lu works six days a week, from 9am to 6pm, for around 5,000 yuan (HK$5,600) a month. He’s fully exposed to the smog except when he enters a building to make a delivery. When he is off work he stays in his rented apartment outside the fifth ring road, far from downtown Beijing, which does not have an air purifier, not even a cheap one costing a few hundred yuan.
“I deliver those purifiers and I know their price, but I only go back home to sleep,” he said. “It is not worth it to buy one.”
Zhang Wenlian, 52, also works long hours outdoors, selling vegetables and fruit with her husband behind a residential building in Beijing’s central business district.
Their produce piled around a tree, the couple wear heavy overcoats but no masks on a freezing Beijing day as they weigh purchases and take cash from customers, many of whom work in nearby office buildings and wear N95 protective masks, capable of filtering out 95 per cent of airborne particles.
“Of course I know I should wear a mask, but it is suffocating,” she said. “I can’t wear it for a whole day.”
Zhang and her husband arrived in Beijing three years ago. They live in a rented apartment and their two children attend a primary school near their open-air fruit stall.
They’re not exactly sure what’s in the smog, but know they should avoid it. But when they did, they realised they could not afford to.
The couple decided that on the worst days, when Beijing’s air quality index hit 500 or more, they would suspend business, but their costs forced them to rethink that strategy.
“What can I do? I open my eyes in the morning and know we have to pay hundreds of yuan of rent each day,” she said. “If we don’t open business, what do we eat?
“What air purifier? I am content enough if we can eat well.”
Those who can afford to fight the smog are better protected.
Gao has started looking for an air purifier for her car after getting air purifiers for her home. She’s also bought facial masks and said she would spare no expense when it came to clearing up the air her family lived in.
“I used to think about spending less on such equipment as long as the protection was sufficient because I wanted to save money for other spending on the child, but now I think staying alive is more important,” she said. “I don’t care how much money I spend as long as the air is clean. I don’t set a budget now, as long as it buys health for my child and my family I can accept any price.”
Although money is not an issue for the middle class, they’re troubled by other concerns, such as whether to leave the smoggy capital for good in search of better air quality.
Lisa Yang, a full-time housewife and mother of an eight-year-old girl, has been trying to flee the capital since the winter of 2014, when the family all suffered severe reactions to the bad air, with sore throats, blocked up noses and constant coughs.
After Christmas that year, the family boarded a plane to the Fujian coast city of Xiamen, which has one of China’s best reputations for air quality.
“An amazing thing happened,” Yang said. “My daughter woke up the very next morning and she did not cough. She coughed again after we returned to Beijing.”
Her husband is a partner in a private company and they could afford to emigrate, but Yang, born in Beijing, hesitated because her parents were too old to follow her abroad and she could not bear to leave them behind.
They thought about moving to another Chinese city with better air quality, but that threw up other problems.
As the nation’s capital, Beijing boasts unmatched educational resources, and the couple would also lose the social and business connections they’ve built up over the years.
If they moved, their daughter could also face difficulties when sitting the university entrance exam, which is currently tied to a pupil’s household registration and school registration. Yang worries her daughter might end up unable to sit the exam in Xiamen or Beijing.
Before they make a final decision, the couple are taking their daughter to the countryside north of Beijing for better air on weekends and taking short breaks where “the air is much more fresh”.
They’re taking the girl to a hot springs hotel in the north the day after her final examination and then to Phuket, in Thailand, after the Lunar New Year.
“She had a very tough time when the smog lasted for a week in early January,” Yang said. “She wanted to play outside but we stayed indoors except one time for her class. We ordered food and stuff online and my husband went out to pick them up.”
Frustrated and depressing by the smog, Yang said she read had read the transcript of environment minister Chen Jining’s press conference on January 7 with interest but had stopped trusting the government. Chen said winter heating, industrial emissions and vehicle exhausts were the major contributers to smog, and that the low air quality was also caused by unfavourable weather conditions.
“I am all for cutting emissions, but the government’s got to make big improvements in cutting industrial pollution, or all my inconvenience from not driving is offset by those emissions from plants,” she said. “Can they guarantee they have done all they could to tackle smog? The sky was blue when the government ordered plants in half the country to shut down for the Apec summit in Beijing in 2014 or the military parade in 2015, but now we can only count on a big wind to save us from smog.”
Marketing manager Jessica Xiong, who works in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, also thinks the government should shoulder more responsibility.
Originally hailing from Yunnan, known for its fresh air, Xiong said the smog in Shijiazhuang meant her throat was always uncomfortable and she blamed the Hebei government, saying it had not ordered the closure of enough polluting factories. Shijiazhuang’s air quality ranked third last in China between January and October last year, behind only Xingtai and Baoding, also in Hebei.
Inconvenienced by orders to drive only on alternate days when the air quality is especially bad, Xiong shared a joke popular with motorists: “I drive a car that’s passed the environmental protection assessment, use fuel that’s licensed as clean and drive on roads approved by the government, is it the way I hit the brake pedal that causes the smog?”
But those who have to work in the open air were much more understanding, either thinking it was too big a problem to solve or that there was no point in complaining.
Lu said smog was caused by industrialisation and there was no way to avoid it.
Security guard Huo Xinghua, who is exposed to the smog for nine hours a day at his post in front of an office building in Beijing’s CBD, said he did not expect the air to improve much.
“The government has spent a lot on treating smog but there are many restrictions on what it can do and some measures can’t be fully implemented,” he said. “When we can’t change the environment, we need to adjust to it.”
Vegetable vendor Zhang was even less concerned. “Beijing is so much better than my home in Baoding,” she said. “I feel I’ve already avoided the smog here.”