There is no reason why Beijing is not on the shortlist of the world’s most beloved destinations, yet the singular thing everyone focuses on when the plane lands is the city’s omnipresent, impenetrable smog.
The smog was thick as always during my few days in town. Conversations over drinks with expats, after touching on work and the Communist Party and other random topics, would always go back to the most basic of human needs, namely air and water. The tone was a collective sigh of exasperation – a desire to get away from a place where wearing pollution masks was a necessity.
Which is a shame, since Beijing, with a history that traces back to the Peking Man 230,000 years ago, one-of-a-kind wonders like the Great Wall and Forbidden Palace, a whopping seven World Heritage Sites in its city proper, has some of the greatest collections of human cultural achievement anywhere on Earth.
All this millennia-worth of history, amazingly, is viewed as a mere sideshow in contemporary Beijing, as the city’s importance lays upon its status as the capital of the world’s second largest economy. With a population of more than 20 millions and a rapidly emerging middle class, engineering masterpieces like the Bird’s Nest Stadium and National Grand Theater are symbols of the city’s ambitious drive towards prosperity and modernization.
This resolute path to development driven by investment has a tremendously negative impact on the environment, which Beijing’s notorious smog serves as a daily reminder. Just how perilous is the city’s air? Of the 2,028 days between April 2008 and March 2014, 80% recorded an above-100 rating on the daily air-quality index, which deems the air to be unhealthy for sensitive groups by U.S. standards. Often the pollution reaches hazardous level and dominates international headlines.
Why is the air so deadly?
Beijing’s air is filled with tiny particulate matter known as PM 2.5, particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in length that can greatly increase the risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. According to the World Health Organization air pollution even has a direct causation to cancer.
These are not just hypotheses – life expectancy of Beijing’s citizens are 5.5 years lower due to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. Breathing Beijing’s air has the same effect as smoking 40 cigarettes a day (which might be an exaggeration), and an estimate of 4,000 people die per day across China because of air pollution.
Three main factors contribute to the pollution: power generation, heavy industry and cars. China burned around 4,250 million tons of coal in 2014, which amounted to almost 50% of the entire planet’s consumption. Worse yet much of this coal was of the highly polluting variety, with a high content of ash and sulphur. The government has tried to curb the use of low-grade coal but the biggest user of coal, power generation, is exempted. Since most of China’s coal production is concentrated in the provinces next to Beijing, the capital’s air inevitably suffers. Add to the toxic mix more than two million automobiles on the road it becomes apparent why Beijing has some of the world’s worst air (and traffic jams).
“When can I go outside?”
One of the most depressing thoughts in life has to be the realization that every breath you take increases you odds of developing life-threatening diseases. This has prompted the Chinese journalist Chai Jing to produce an online video called Under the Dome (video with subtitles). When her daughter was born, she was diagnosed with a tumour, which Chai believed was caused by her own constant exposure to Beijing’s air.
When the infant was discharged from the hospital, Chai covered all the gaps between windows and frames in her home with duck tape. Her infant never stepped out of the apartment except for immunization. Chai felt helpless to the question she knew would come eventually, “Mom, why do you trap me indoor all the time? Why can’t I go outside?”
Compares to what Beijing’s inhabitants submit to everyday, short-term exposure to the city’s air pollution is probably inconsequential to a visitor’s health. But until air pollution ceases to weigh on everyone’s mind, Beijing will always punch below its weight as a tourist destination.