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Beijing Sky’s Fifty Shades of Gray

By Adam Minter
January 15, 2013 5:46 PM EST
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The week of Aug. 4, 2008, began with a gray haze hanging over Beijing. This was a problem. And as we saw in recent days, China’s leaders are still struggling to solve it.

On the evening of Aug. 8, 2008, the Summer Olympics were scheduled to open. Since being awarded the games in 2001, the government had repeatedly promised that the city’s notorious air pollution would be solved in time for the first events.

Skepticism about the promises had existed from the start. On Aug. 5 such doubt made a particularly public -- and embarrassing -- appearance when a small group of U.S. cyclists arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport wearing black face masks to protect their finely tuned lungs.

The masks didn’t stay on long. Michael Friedman, one of the cyclists, pulled his down for a video interview at the airport. But the damage was done: Images of U.S. athletes guarding themselves against supposedly dirty Chinese air soon spread worldwide. Friedman was quoted in the New York Times, saying that U.S. Olympic officials informed the cyclists that “the Chinese were mad and that this is a politically charged issue.”

It wasn’t just official China that noticed: China’s online communities, represented by blogs and bulletin boards in the pre-microblogging era, were riled by the images of the masked Americans. Not every comment was critical -- many Chinese acknowledged air pollution as a real problem, for foreigners as well as Chinese -- but many were.

“If you think it’s dirty you don’t have to come. But since you have come, do not insult us Chinese,” wrote one angry commenter to the KDS bulletin board, a once-popular Shanghai- based website. “If you dare to wear a face mask, then we can sell stars and stripes underwear and wear them on the outside like superheroes.”

In the heat of the outrage, the American cyclists apologized. Meanwhile, thanks to a monumental regulatory effort that shut down coal-burning power plants and construction sites and pulled millions of vehicles off the roads, Beijing enjoyed the cleanest air that the city’s youngest residents had ever known.

Then the Olympics ended, the athletes left and most of the anti-pollution measures were lifted. Soon, Beijing was back to business, and the air quality was back to being polluted.

As recently as January 2012, however, Beijingers -- and most Chinese -- didn’t have access to internationally accepted data about how polluted it was. That changed when, under popular pressure (much of it generated on microblogs), the city began reporting the concentration of small particulates suspended in the air that are particularly damaging to human health -- known as PM 2.5 data.

Such data has not been flattering: Beijing’s air quality regularly falls below World Health Organization standards. One insidious side effect of this polluted state of affairs is a general downgrade of the average young Beijinger’s expectations: If you’ve grown up thinking of blue skies as a rarity, then another gray, polluted day won’t be anything to complain about.

Even for Beijingers who’ve grown accustomed, if not numb, to hazy days, the hazardous cloud of toxic smog that descended on the city late last week was something notably awful, with PM 2.5 measurements rising as high as 933 micrograms per cubic meter. The WHO guidelines call for achieving a measurement below 25 micrograms per cubic meter over a 24-hour period. By U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, anything over 55 micrograms per cubic meter over 24 hours is unhealthy, and anything over 250 is hazardous.

Still, most Beijingers don’t need a data set to know which way the wind blows -- or the air quality index trends. Over the past weekend, all they had to do is look out their windows at Beijing’s obscured vistas.

Perhaps no site in Beijing is as famous, photographed or politically significant as the view of Chairman Mao’s portrait pinned to the Forbidden City, as viewed across the street from Tiananmen Square. On the morning of Jan. 14 that vista -- or lack thereof -- also became a popular tweet of the Beijing air- quality crisis.

Xu Xin, a Beijing lawyer, tweeted a photo of gray -- and only gray -- to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service, with the accompanying joking message: “No distance is greater than the one you experience when you are standing in Tiananmen Square and can’t see Chairman Mao.”

Xu’s tweet -- though likely a mere image of gray not photographed at the famous vista -- has been forwarded more than 70,000 times since Jan. 14 and generated more than 12,000 comments. Of these comments, several dozen at least do nothing more than restate the title of the official song from the 2008 Summer Olympics: “Beijing Welcomes You!

It isn’t just the microbloggers who are invoking the false promise of Beijing 2008’s temporarily blue skies. Cao Lin, a microblogging editor and columnist with China Youth Daily, one of China’s most influential Communist Party-owned newspapers, published a scathing editorial on the air-quality crisis on Jan. 14 in which he noted: “Because of worries about Beijing’s air quality during the Olympic Games, many athletes claimed that they ‘had to wear masks’ to Beijing. Many people felt that the gesture was over-the-top, and under some interpretations it was even viewed as disrespectful. But if you take a walk in Beijing these days, and see the many anti-pollution face masks, you will fully understand why the foreigners were worried.”

Cao goes on to mention that Beijing’s pharmacies have sold out of face masks, and more and more microbloggers are confirming his claim. Even worse, the shortage appears to have spread to other provinces and cities. A young microblogger in Zhengzhou, a city 450 miles away from Beijing that -- along with dozens of other Chinese cities -- has also suffered from poor air quality over the last few days, used Sina Weibo to signal her distress on Jan. 15: “My head is spinning and I suspect the air is toxic. I went to the pharmacy to buy a face mask and was told that they’ve already sold out.” At the time she posted her tweet, Zhengzhou’s PM 2.5 was at 420 micrograms per cubic meter.

Moments after the young woman in Zhengzhou tweeted her distress, a Beijing microblogger tweeted his, too: “I went to buy a mask but they’re out of stock everywhere, so I became a human flesh air purifier …”

Maybe he won’t have to serve in that capacity for long. Several emergency measures, including a moratorium on the use of official cars, were imposed in Beijing on Jan. 14. As of the evening of Jan. 15 in China, PM 2.5 ratings had dropped from the “hazardous” levels of the weekend (as determined by the U.S. EPA), to the merely “very unhealthy.” It’s unclear whether the emergency measures or a shift in weather patterns (or both) have made the difference.

In the meantime, the people of Beijing, and their ruling Communist Party, are left for searching for answers to prevent what is all but inevitable: Another toxic weekend like the one just passed. One anonymous Beijing microblogger, tweeting to Sina Weibo on Jan. 13, offered an idea that should appeal to everyone: “To solve the air pollution in Beijing we must hold the Olympics every year.”

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.

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