Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Living with Beijing's 'air-pocalypse'

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
January 19, 2013 -- Updated 1829 GMT (0229 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • FlorCruz: On bad days in Beijing, seeing, breathing is difficult
  • Rapid industrialization, explosive growth in cars contribute to China's air pollution
  • State-run media acknowledge China's lead status as emitter of greenhouse gases
  • Health is the big casualty

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- "Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in...." my wife Ana blurted into a song this week, as she gazed eastwards through the window of our apartment in downtown Beijing.

The old tune from the Broadway show "Hair" seemed apt. This is the fourth consecutive morning that we woke up staring at a grey haze.

It's another bad-air day in Beijing. You can barely see. You can barely breathe. But you can feel -- and even taste -- the grit floating in the air.

The World Health Organization has set healthy level of Air Quality Index at 25 micrograms, while Beijing considers a 300 reading as "Bad" and 500 as "Hazardous." Last weekend, however, it breached 700!

"I'm getting itchy," complained my daughter Michelle, 22, visiting us from New York. "I could feel it at the back of my throat."

Longtime expatriate residents in the Chinese capital jokingly call it the "Beijing tickle," a nagging cough that takes a long time to shrug off.

Beijing adopts emergency measures for hazardous pollution

Air pollution is a major problem in China because of the country's rapid pace of industrialization, reliance on coal power, explosive growth in car ownership and the sometimes disregard for environmental laws.

Dangerous smog blankets Beijing

It is now paying the price of rapid development.

In 2007, China overtook the United States as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to China's Ministry of Commerce. It is also the No. 1 source of carbon emission worldwide, state-run China Daily reported recently.

Beijing experiences terrible air quality

Added to this, the World Bank says 20 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in China.

Health is the big casualty.

Greenpeace on Beijing's hazardous smog

Almost 400,000 premature deaths are recorded in China each year, with the majority related to pollution, according to the World Bank's "Cost of Pollution in China," a report based on official Chinese figures.

Beijing's pollution merely 'hazardous'

A growing number of individuals and institutions are looking to find last-gasp solutions.

I could feel it at the back of my throat
Michelle FlorCruz, daughter

The government has already shut down high-polluting factories, built new subway lines, and allocated state subsidies to reduce the cost of public transport.

Beijing bans vehicles from the road one day a week to reduce heavy traffic and vehicle emissions.

It also imports natural gas from other provinces to rely less on coal for heating and cooking.

As part of a long-term solution, Chinese researchers are producing prototypes of solar and electric cars to replace gas-fueled vehicles.

So far, these measures have not produced consistently blue skies and clean air.

Green activists complain that even though government regulations have improved, laws are often ignored.

One of Beijing's big problems has been the city's geography, as it is surrounded by mountains shaped like a horseshoe.

When pollution blows in from the heavily industrial neighboring towns and cities, it builds up and, in windless days, gets trapped over the capital.

Off-the-charts pollution in China

In fact, this is not the first time bad air has bedeviled Beijing. I remember one day last year when the U.S. embassy's air monitoring system reported the pollution level as "crazy bad."

What can we Beijing residents do about it?

Wear face masks? Unless you use heavy-duty ones, I am told, they do not really make much difference.

Turn on air-purifiers full blast? We've never used one at home, although my friends swear they help.

"The truth is there isn't a lot people can do about ambient air pollution," said Deborah Soligsohn, an environment and energy specialist at the World Resources Institute, a U.S. based think tank.

"Ambient air pollution is not nearly as large a health risk as more immediate forms of air pollution. Tobacco is a much larger killer, and indoor air pollution from poorly ventilated wood and coal fires has traditionally been a much larger killer in the developing world. Smoky restaurants and bars can have levels as high as these recent air pollution numbers."

I know a few expat friends who have decided to relocate out of Beijing and were mainly turned off by its bad air.

"What did you think of Beijing?" I asked David Van Dyke, who lived and worked in Beijing for nearly seven years before relocating to Canada last year.

"Mostly liked it, save for the Internet (censorship) and pollution," he said.

Meantime, some residents have resorted to humor and sarcasm online to vent their frustration.

"I love my city, but I refuse to be a human vacuum cleaner," netizens re-tweeted on Weibo, China's microblogging social media. "We want clean air, and we want to breathe freely."

Others posted pictures wearing face masks of various shapes and designs.

A page of Sohu.com featured a section covered with haze, with a note saying the headlines have been obscured by a massive smog. "Click on it, and it will clear up." Once it cleared it, the title read: "We live in a "toxic gas.'"

"Don't worry," Henry Ngo posted on my Facebook page. "Smokers are inhaling worst air than this. And they did not die immediately!"

Is this now the new "normal"?

Soligsohn, who lived in Beijing for 14 years, does not think so.

"This is a confluence of bad events," she assured me. "Pollution is definitely a problem. It hasn't gone away, but there is no reason to believe an extreme reading is anything other than an extreme."

There seems to be no quick solution.

"This is complex and takes time, but the work has begun," Soligsohn added.

"It took cities like London and Los Angeles almost half a century to get from really dirty air to pretty clean air, and LA has never actually fully met EPA standards, which have become tougher with new information."

Five days after what some have dubbed Beijing's "air-mageddon," the sunshine has reappeared, and the air has actually turned relatively clear.

My daughter points out that London and Los Angeles have confronted pollution as well. As long as the Chinese recognize it is a problem, they will eventually be able to strike a balance between a clean environment and a thriving economy."

Wind has dispersed some of the smog, although my chest remains heavy and my throat is still itchy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 0916 GMT (1716 HKT)
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 0545 GMT (1345 HKT)
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
ADVERTISEMENT