It’s so simple, isn’t it? – An expat’s take on smog in Beijing

January 28, 2013ChinaGamerGuy14 Comments, , , , , ,

Chris Toepker is a contributor to Ministry of Tofu. He hails from the United States, has been living in greater China since 1990 and has recently relocated to Beijing.

All too often, visitors to Beijing fret and cluck their tongues at the air pollution. While it certainly is awful, clearing the air is certainly no simple matter. This year, the most encouraging aspect of the whole siutation comes with the breath of fresh air from a simple local front page headline.

As you probably already know, the air here has been bad. Really bad. So bad that international news outlets picked up the story, perhaps most tellingly reporting the US Embassy’s air quality meter a few Saturdays ago tweeting readings above 700, when the scale was supposed to only go up to 500. Or The Economist’s photos of people practicing tai chi  in the haze.

As for myself, it’s been something of a learning curve roller coaster. My expectations were quite low to start with, based on experiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s (the last time a spent a few weeks at a time in Beijing in the winter). At that time, buildings just across the street would disappear in the haze. Then, during spot visits in 2008, with all the hoopla around cleaning up the air for the Olympiad, the long haul of raised expectations began. During those visits, the pure blue of the sky was truly amazing. It continued to amaze when I moved here last fall.

Indeed, even as the weather cooled and the community heating kicked on, there was nothing but blue skies. As folks globally told me to be careful of the air, I was sending out many an Instagram of Beijing’s blue. I just couldn’t get over it.

A few weeks ago, just west of GongTi Stadium

At the end of 2012, a weeks ago, just west of GongTi Stadium

Then “out of the blue” came the heavy-duty pollution. Ironic, no?

Just west of GongTi stadium, on infamous 700 Saturday

Just west of GongTi stadium, on infamous 700 Saturday (Jan. 12)

The reactions reported internationally mostly concerned the government’s response and the run on breathing masks and so on. I certainly did see a lot of that, but it wan’t the most shocking piece of news to me.For the most part, we Beijingers* seem to have just shrugged and gone on with life. The preparations for the New Year aren’t going to take care of themselves, so you have to go out and shop. And being cooped up at home has its limits, so there are always people out on the streets, in the parks and generally “out and about.”

For myself, I took a small, non-scientific poll of my colleagues. For the record, there’s only two foreigners in the company, me and a Singaporean, the rest are mostly either originally from Beijing or nearby places like Tianjin. The optimists thought that the situation is much improved from the past, so even though it was bad, the common reply was “It’s getting better!” They happily talk about how most of the factories have been moved farther away or how traffic controls (e.g. the odd-even license plate controls into downtown) are working. Still, their concerns are revealed in many other ways. For example, those with children regularly complain how troublesome the kids are at home. Why? “Well, when they can’t go out to play, they have no way to let out their energy.” The implications are obvious.

The pessimists seemed less willing to accept the situation and to want outside confirmation that the situation was unbearable. Many a conversation in the last few weeks would begin, “Is it like this in the US?” Or “What do you think of this? It’s terrible, isn’t it?!” What can you say, except “No,” and “Yes”? The complaining usually continues to cover the ways roads were being closed because visibility is so poor, and the extra trouble that causes. A sort of adding salt to the wound set of thinking.

Speaking of the office, we have something of our own air quality monitor. As we look east from the Second Ring Road, if we can see CCTV tower over on Third Ring Road, it’s All Clear. If we can make out some of the outlines in that neighborhood, it’s Take Care. If it’s just a blank wall of smog, we go to Stay Inside.

When you see CCTV Tower, it's All Clear

When you see CCTV Tower, it’s All Clear

The same view on 700 Saturday - Stay Inside!

The same view on 700 Saturday – Stay Inside!

On a more personal note, I mostly get around on foot and public transport. The haze is obviously ever present, and it’s effects always something of a concern.  In a complete turnaround, I now find myself wonder: “Where does it all come from?”

Firstly, there’s of course so many cars. Beijing’s traffic is infamous, and its contribution to the pollution probably goes under reported and until recently under recognized. New emissions regulations have been annouced for the expected 6 million cars in Beijing by 2015. More personally, there is nothing like traveling at 200 meters an hour to drive the point home – cars foul the air!

Travelling between these two bridges took 30 minutes.

Travelling between these two bridges took 30+ minutes.


Other sources of pollution are more “out of sight, out of mind.” Then, surprise! There it is.  As in this case, where I went to visit some local friends who live just north of the third ring road…

Beijing plant belches smoke, by ChinaGamerGuy

…And was stunned to find they live right next to a power plant. I am sure that when the plant was built, this seemed plenty far away. But now these poor folks are the front lines of the “human filters” that have lit up WeiBo these past weeks.

Sadly, the picture overall is hazy – not just the air. Put simply:  folks should have electricy and motor vehicles, but must we live like this?

To be very clear, I am not asking this judgementally. I originally come from the Rust Belt along the Ohio River. I know all too well about rivers burning from industrial waste. I’ve seen the pictures from Pittsburg and other steel towns in the US, and recently there was even badness from an inversion in my adopted home, Seattle.

The difference of course, is that those situations and incidents led to the Clean Air and Water act. One wonders how China might learn from the US experience and do better for it’s citizens. And in that area, perhaps the optimists are right.

Indeed, as you’ve no doubt inferred, I find none of the above surprsing. So, were there any surprises? Yes! This frontpage headline:

"Heavy Pollution Blatently Reveals China's Weakness"

“Heavy Pollution Blatently Reveals China’s Weakness”

It is very certainly most surprising to see a Beijing paper put out something this blatant. In many ways, its the most encouraging breath of fresh air that could be hoped for.

(More at

(Thanks to Piet who pointed out that we are to the west, so we must be looking east from the Second Ring Road to the Third.)

*I realize it may sound strange that I call myself a Beijinger, but why not? If folks who just moved to New York can be New Yorkers, then I figure I can be cut some slack.

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14 comments to “It’s so simple, isn’t it? – An expat’s take on smog in Beijing”

  1. Piet | January 28, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    “As we look west from the Second Ring Road, if we can see CCTV tower over on Third Ring Road”

    I think you mean you look east from the 2nd to the 3rd Ring

    • ChinaGamerGuy | January 28, 2013 | Permalink Reply

      Yes. Shoot. We are indeed to the west and so *look* east. Thanks. Correcting now.

  2. nameless | January 28, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    Out of the number of countries that are pushing forward with much cleaner green initiatives, why should China learn from “the” US experience, which really on the whole could be doing so much more for it’s citizens and environment? What is it that you are referring to?

    • ChinaGamerGuy | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

      Well, of course you are right. I certainly agree that I shouldn’t imply the US experiences are solitary. Still, I’m from those places…so they are *the* experience for me. As for what it’s referring to, I thought it was clear: The Clean Air and Water Act, which was a result of terrible smog (akin to Beijings, just in (say) Pittsburg) and so on. In other words, an enforceable and enforced regulatory framework. For a quick example, there’s always Wikipedia:

  3. m2a3t0t3 | January 28, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    I find it interesting that you mention the Ohio River Valley! It is nice to read about someone talking about home!

    • ChinaGamerGuy | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

      Thanks! Yes, we may venture far afield, but don’t we always wind up carrying a lot of home with us?

  4. kungpao | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    I have a hard time seeing it getting any better in the next 10 years. China is consistently under an energy crunch and is committed to building as many coal power plants as they can manage. The growth demands more energy and unfortunately cheap coal is the solution of the government, not renewable sources. Still the pollution in Beijing is much better than places like Taiyuan or Wuhan where it typically rains mud.

    • ChinaGamerGuy | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

      Indeed, it is hard to imagine. I find myself on the fence, perfectly balanced between the optimists and the pessimists. I take heart in the fact that China is not the first to have faced these problems. The issues are not insurmountable. As for “raining mud,” my word! That is indeed bad. I often wonder what might be in the snow here, but it at least its remained white so far.

  5. pw | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    I lived pretty close to the CCTV tower in the late 90s. It was barely visible then. Everywhere in Beijing the air was pretty horrible. I wonder how much worse it could be now.

    • ChinaGamerGuy | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

      Exactly! The office I was working from at the time was in Kerry Center. We couldn’t see the Trade Center, nor even the school (that was there at the time, and is now a giant shopping mall).

  6. Blacksoth | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    China is doing all kinds of projects to improve environmental conditions. I saw a pretty impressive filtration system they were using to try cleaning up a chain of lakes (using absorbant algae). They also have green zones scattered about that’s pretty harsh on industry. Unfortunately, with so much corruption and lack of political will, these projects always stay small and localized and there’s no real comprehensive policy that I can tell. Real change will require a decision to that effect from the Party.

    Years ago I was in Beijing in 1994 and, after being there less then a week, I was regularly blowing black mucus into a tissue every time I blew my nose. Doesn’t take much to think that pollution has gotten worse since then, even without a regular twitter feed from the US consulate telling us the latest PM info. But I would have thought that black snot was a good indicator the air wasn’t good to breathe.

    @author You’re certainly entitled to call yourself whatever you like, Beijinger or whatever. One question though (and this is in all sincerity and not intended as a slight of any kind) – wouldn’t a number of chinese determine a “Beijinger” by whether or not they had a hukou? (Do you have one?)

    • ChinaGamerGuy | January 29, 2013 | Permalink Reply

      Firstly, you’re right about the small scale efforts, and that what is needed is larger scale applications. I take heart in the fact China often starts small and then rolls out successful efforts nationwide. The old “feel the stones to cross the river” approach.

      Ah, yes. Black snot. That is a good indicator, as is simply wiping your face and seeing the tissue smeared with black.

      As for “Beijinger,” a fully thought through response just might need to be another article. In the meantime: no. I don’t have hukou registry. I haven’t really looked into it; I’ve always assumed I wasn’t qualified. So, I use the term thoroughly loosely. I liked the sentiment I saw in an online forum here, on this topic, where someone quipped (from memory, on my part): “Come on, just because you have a Beijing hukou means you’re a Beijinger? So, when you get a foreign hukou/passport, you’re all of a sudden a foreigner?” (拜托,因为你有北京户口你就成为北京人吗?那么,当你入国外的户口,你就变成外国人吗?“) Finally, one of my clearer memories of first coming to Asia was talking about my Beijinger (北京人) teachers with my Taiwan classmates. They burst out laughing! Because to them, “bei jing ren” mostly (or even only) refers to the stone age Peking Man!

      In short, I use the term with a large grain of salt.

      • Blacksoth | February 2, 2013 | Permalink Reply

        Getting black streaks by wiping your face just shows how much worse things have gotten. The fact that people are literally dying from the pollution (not to mention the inevitable crisis in food that’s sure to come) leads me to believe those big changes will come sooner rather than later. And social upheaval is sure to follow.

  7. will | March 19, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    “learning curve roller coaster “… perhaps that could be rewritten to include fewer cliches

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