Tea Leaf Nation

‘The Sky Is Really Blue, But It Isn’t for Us’

Chinese netizens wonder why the air in Beijing is only clean when important foreigners come to town. 


From Nov. 5 to Nov. 11, Beijing is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, an important annual meeting. To prevent Beijing’s notorious bouts of smog from distracting from the meeting, the Chinese government took a number of steps, some logical, some extreme. It shut factories in and around the capital. It granted a six-day holiday to some workers in the city. It even suspended the granting of marriage licenses.

A viral post on WeChat, one of the most popular mobile messaging apps with roughly 438 million monthly active users, dubbed the sky and the government’s efforts "APEC blue," which the post’s author defined as something "beautiful but fleeting." Contrast that to "Beijing smog," which the author defined as "lingering negative psychological impacts."

Yes, the air is cleaner in Beijing. On Nov. 5, the first day of APEC, the PM 2.5 reading, a commonly used measure for air pollution, hovered around 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Though the PM 2.5 reading jumped back up to the high single digits Nov. 6 to Nov. 8, it’s much better than the 344 it reached Sunday, Oct. 19 — the day of the Beijing Marathon. At the conference, the air is even healthier. Beijing set up 148 air purifiers in the China National Convention Center, one of the APEC convention venues; they can reportedly filter around 90 percent of the PM2.5 particles.

For many Chinese, however, the real issue is not the air pollution itself but how the government treats long-existing problems differently when foreigners are present.

"Foreigners’ praise means a lot to Chinese," the columnist Liu Yuanju explained in a Nov. 6 post on his blog, and added that the wariness around doing anything embarrassing when foreigners are present often leads to absurd situations. "APEC is such a big thing. I’d better not cause any trouble to others," Tian Weidong, a 46-year-old local resident in Huairou, told Sina News Center, a popular news web site. Tian, who is disabled, wasn’t able to drive her motorized three-wheeler to the local hospital — because the government is enforcing an often-ignored ban on three wheelers, in part to reduce auto emissions. (The article has since been deleted from social media and other venues.)

"The sky is really blue, but it isn’t for us! How sad," A Beijing-based commentator mocked on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. "Turns out that we COULD have blue skies. I hope that Beijing will have these big conferences non-stop. "

Wang Wenzhi, a veteran journalist for China’s official news agency Xinhua, re-tweeted on his verified Weibo account, "The sky is ‘APEC blue.’ Roads are ‘APEC smooth.’ People are ‘APEC few.’ Here is a sincere call from Beijing citizens: APEC, stay with us! We will give you a courtyard home and a Beijing Hukou," the post read, referring to the permit needed for Chinese from other parts of the country to reside in the capital.

For others, however, the biggest worry is what will happen after APEC. "Small-sized factories speed up their production to make up for the loss; small cars all take to the road; people flood to hospital to see the doctor as they should have done earlier," Beijing-based columnist Zhang Shanshan wrote on Weibo. "After ‘APEC blue,’ I predict there will be ‘revenge smog."

Lotus Ruan is a contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation.