Beijing, 14 January 2013

The photo above was posted today, 14 January 2013.


And you thought Mexico City’s air was bad.


In Beijing, air pollution is so dangerous that emergency measures were just enacted to alleviate its effect on children. As CNN reports, “Schoolchildren were ordered to halt outdoor sports activities until Tuesday this week, as a dirty cloud of smog continued to shroud China’s capital. This was among a series of emergency response measures adopted in Beijing Sunday when the city’s Air Quality Index exceeded 500 micrograms, the highest level. Anything above this is regarded as ‘beyond index’.”

Babies have been hospitalized.

The wind is supposed to rush through in two more days. Officials, parents, everyone hopes the breeze will sweep the skies clean.


Despite the promises made by the Chinese government before the 2008 Olympics, and its assurances since then, Beijing residents have not seen a diminution of pollution. It’s as though they’re living in 1950s Charleston, West Virginia, before the Clean Air Act was passed. The Chinese echo those American old-timers in protesting that they “haven’t seen the sun in four days”.


When unbearable air conditions force the cancellation of nearly 700 flights per year, as at the airport in Beijing, everyone knows you’re in trouble.

Beijing air has been bad for years. This weekend, it got much worse. “The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Centre said levels of PM2.5, tiny particulate matter, had reached more than 600 micrograms per square metre in many areas, and Reuters said it may even have hit 900 – its worst-ever reading. The World Health Organisation considers a safe daily level to be 25.”

Only 25. Yet the levels of particulate (ash, smoke, etc.), the stuff that settles in lungs, that causes disease, are currently at least 600, and may be as high as 900.

That’s 36 times the WHO’s safe daily level.

In future years, doctors may well ask Chinese with unhealthy lungs, “Did you live in Beijing in January of 2013?”

Yet the problem is not just in one city.

The Chinese government has plans to create multiple brand-new cities in its extensive west, not over many decades as occurred in the US (St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver), but over a mere few years. By funneling excess young men – created by its one-child policy plus permission to abort female fetuses – to its western rural areas, it hopes to channel their energies as well as raise cities from the dust.

So where will that dust go?

It will settle into the lungs of designers, engineers, builders and residents. And it will travel.

Since the winds in western China often flow to the northeast, the dust will reach . . . Beijing.

Or, if on a semi-clear day you can see winds stream forever east, those clouds of dust will blanket China’s commercial coastal cities, like Shanghai and Fuzhou.

From the Independent: “Air pollution is a major problem in China due to its rapid pace of industrialization, reliance on coal power, explosive growth in car ownership and disregard to environmental laws. In Beijing, authorities have [also] blamed foggy conditions and a lack of wind for the high concentration of air pollutants.”

Can we add “lack of planning”?

Look, it took many years of hard work before the Clean Air Act was passed in the US. Manufacturers balked and protested that they would go bankrupt – yet General Motors still exists – and even today, Tea Partyers complain about government nannyism.

Would they and their children rather breathe Beijing’s air?

That air is a brewing toxic nightmare, and for the Chinese, rather like riding in a freight train they know with certainty will hit a second freight train dead-on.

We’re just watching in slow-motion.