inside thoughts on China and beyond

Red Alarm

AQI

(Monday 174 red)  The sun is shining -though somewhat watery. The sky is blueish and the temperature is just right. The peach trees in front of our kitchen window are blossoming -spring is in the air! These are those rare days that I just can’t stop myself from running. Running my lazy winter sweat out. Loosening my stiff muscles. Pumping blood through my vessels and spring air into my lungs. Reason to rejoice, was it not that there is more in the air. More than meets the eye. It’s called pollution.

(Tuesday 288 purple)  Air pollution is the latest hype. The tricky part is that you cannot see it. It’s not like the horrifying Charles Dickens’ stories of dirty dark foggy and choking London during England’s economical boom more than a century ago. We had those days too, long ago, when the sky had another color each morning; red Monday, purple Tuesday, and so on. Today, in the age of China’s economical wonder, it’s not that a grey day means pollution and a sunny day clean air. It is much simpler: it’s always polluted. The only question is: how bad?

Most important of what is measured are the tiny airborne particles, less than 2.5 microns in diameter, known as fine particle matter 2.5 (PM2.5). These are so fine that it can not be seen (a blue sky can be very polluted) and do not only affect the throat and lungs but seep through into the blood vessels and therefore lead to health hazards that makes you want to upgrade your insurance package. The Air Quality Index (AQI) values published on the web come with colors. That’s done for people like me, for whom numbers have no meaning or emotion, except, I have to admit, when reflecting an amount on my bank account in the color red. Since young, I’ve always needed tricks and with the colors, it’s so easy to remember: anything red representing the AQI value between 151 and 200 – I immediately start to envision a communist flags and Mao’s Red Book – anything red is alarming; danger!; get out! ‘Good’ is green (think of the traffic light and fresh spring leafs) for readings below 50; ‘moderate’ is yellow, below 100; and beyond that is some form of reddish color resulting in some degree of health damage. The maximum score is 500; beyond that the black hole. Most days, Chengdu is above 300 (maroon, the brownish color not unlike the murky fluid that flows in the small stream near our house). Some days ago we scored over 600 and one day even as high as 1200. That was quite an excitement: we survived a pollution level that went far beyond what scientists believed ultimately possible, deep into the black hole. There is no color for the impossible.

It started about 2 month ago. The hype that is; the air pollution was here in increasing values ever since Deng Xiaoping opened up China in ’79. In China, hypes come and go. They can last few months or be over after a few days. When the nuclear reactors in Japan melted, all shops quickly ran out of salt because for a few days it was believed to be the remedy against radiation. After the earthquake in 2008 everything drinkable disappeared from the shops for a flood was predicted that would contaminate the whole of the Sichuan Valley. Before that was SARS. And it all blew over and was quickly forgotten.

(Wednesday 532 maroon)  This seems a stayer. So much so that the new leaders have elevated this problem to one of their 3 main action points. Trouble was in the air when the city government of Beijing started to publish daily pollution levels that were significantly lower then the daily findings of the US embassy in the capital. Earlier on, the embassy had erected a large notice board visible for all who bothered to walk by, displaying the day’s air pollution reading. Initially it were not the numbers that lead to an increase in Weibo messages (the Chinese version of Twitter, the modern and most efective tool for gossip and rumors) but the difference between the embassy’s and Beijing’s official information. pollution in ChongqingDepending on what informant you wished to believe, you could do some running around in perfectly fine and healthy air without any risks or be staying indoors as much as possible to avoid life shortening exposure; all on the same day. Pick your choice. And people tend to choose that what they trust most; also the Chinese. This upset the local officials and for a while they tried to force the embassy to take down the pollution board for this was none of their business and an interference in China’s internal affairs. The embassy humbly apologized for this unintended effect but added that its only goal was to inform its fellow Americans, whose well-being was surely the embassy’s concern. The board was taken down, as requested, and replaced by online publications. Now at last, no one had to leave home before knowing what the day would bring.

You wouldn’t think air pollution to be much of a problem in China, where a large majority are chain-smoking. But it was. Hurting yourself is never as bad as being hurt by others. The people started to move and stir. On Weibo, the air quality rate discrepancy went viral and the dam broke. Everyone was holding their breath and unrest was breathing down Big Brother’s neck – and this is not healthy for any leader. But lessons were learned: stability was at stake, and that’s when it became one of the 3 main priorities for China’s new leader Xi Jinping and his comrades.

(Thursday 124 orange -it hasn’t been this low for a long time! In the normal world this is considered ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’, but here in China, this is a good day!)  Now, there are AQI readings published in most large and middle size cities in China. We are all advised to wear air filter masks and some of us do. They come in all forms, shapes and qualities. From simple pieces of cloth hanging in front of your mouth on elastic bands wrapped around your ears to complicated futuristic designs with replaceable filters on each cheek. Preferably made in USA or Europe. Chinese choose what they trust most; and at the core of all problems is not just the issue itself, but a deep distrust that over many centuries became a fundamental component of the Chinese society. A true sense of responsibility for the community is limited to close family and a small group of connections.

This is especially true in the big cities. They grow, expend, demolish, renew, grow more, then expend again, demolish, and renew again until even the oldest citizen is as much a stranger in town as the latest arriving migrant worker. This estrangement that coincides with a daily supply of new tales of money grabbing officials and their spoiled kids, trying to cover up or distort the truth whenever they can: thousands of dead pigs floating in a Shanghai river, falling bridges, bribes, contaminated baby milk powder; it all leads to a desperate feeling of distrust. Chinese distrust anything Chinese. Even New Zealand milk is out of favor after it became common knowledge that Chinese businessmen had bought up dairy farms there. Not so long ago, I bought loads of baby milk for a Chinese friend while I was in Holland and had it shipped to her in China. Not that baby milk isn’t available in China; it’s just that nobody trusts it. And now we all know I wasn’t the only one: Holland and HongKong are closing its doors for milk-tourism simply because there’s nothing left for their own milk drinking locals.

(Friday 893 no color)  I gave up running and found a spot in a local tea house. In the far corner of the terrace, a man is wearing an air filter mask. Breathing is difficult and speaking is muffled. But health is important and has its price. He pulls the mask down with a well-practiced move, not unlike the bank robber in a cowboy movie after a job well-done. From his left pocket, he pulls out a pack of cigarettes, lights one, sits back, inhales deep and closes his eyes. Peaceful joy and deep satisfaction radiate from his face like a silver glow as he relaxes even more. Thank God for cigarettes with filter!

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5 responses

  1. Love the ending!

    April 2, 2013 at 11:23 pm

  2. It’s terrible when it’s so polluted that you cannot go out and exercise and feel fresh air in your lungs. That is one thing I don’t miss about Hong Kong, as well… Your description of the man on Friday—oh, irony.

    April 5, 2013 at 1:34 pm

  3. love it!

    April 7, 2013 at 2:57 am

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