The View From Beijing’s Smog ‘Red Alert’

What does it look like inside China's pollution emergency?

GettyImages-500374372_960
GettyImages-500374372_960

When Beijing awoke Tuesday morning under a thick haze of some of the worst smog on record, it did so knowing that millions of its citizens would spend the next two-and-a-half days stuck inside. Facing the city's first "red alert" for air pollution — the highest-level warning in China’s four-tier system, which runs from blue, yellow, and orange to red — Beijing officials announced late Monday night they would be closing schools, shutting down outside construction sites, and suspending work at factories through Thursday at noon, when a cold front is expected to clear the haze.

Still reliant heavily on coal power, China has previously suffered through notoriously terrible smog. Even so, this round is particularly bad. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, people should restrict their time outside when the air quality index (AQI), which measures the concentration of pollutants in the air, rises above 200. At 300, people aren't supposed to go outside at all. In Beijing on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported an AQI topping 340.

Beijing's citizens have been through this before, of course. The city clocked a staggering AQI of 755 back in 2013. And those who have ventured outside have documented what it looks like in the haze (and even juxtaposed with photos at the same sites on days with bluer skies).

When Beijing awoke Tuesday morning under a thick haze of some of the worst smog on record, it did so knowing that millions of its citizens would spend the next two-and-a-half days stuck inside. Facing the city’s first “red alert” for air pollution — the highest-level warning in China’s four-tier system, which runs from blue, yellow, and orange to red — Beijing officials announced late Monday night they would be closing schools, shutting down outside construction sites, and suspending work at factories through Thursday at noon, when a cold front is expected to clear the haze.

Still reliant heavily on coal power, China has previously suffered through notoriously terrible smog. Even so, this round is particularly bad. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, people should restrict their time outside when the air quality index (AQI), which measures the concentration of pollutants in the air, rises above 200. At 300, people aren’t supposed to go outside at all. In Beijing on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported an AQI topping 340.

Beijing’s citizens have been through this before, of course. The city clocked a staggering AQI of 755 back in 2013. And those who have ventured outside have documented what it looks like in the haze (and even juxtaposed with photos at the same sites on days with bluer skies).

Take a look below:

Posted Tuesday morning by China’s Xinhua News, these photos show Beijing’s standout landmarks — the National Center for the Performing Arts, the CCTV headquarters, the Gate of Heavenly Peace — foregrounded by shots on clearer days.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.55.10 AM

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.55.10 AM

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.54.43 AM

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.54.43 AM

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.54.57 AM

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.54.57 AM

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.55.25 AM

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.55.25 AM

Images copyright Xinhua News.

Others have added the outlines of buildings behind the smog, for those who were having trouble figuring out just what they were supposed to be seeing.

wu_mai_xiang_xiang_li_

wu_mai_xiang_xiang_li_

Image from Borderless News WeChat Account. H/t ChinaFile.

While the red alert has pulled half of the city’s cars off the road, it also has delayed flights at Beijing’s international airport.

A plane waits to take off on a day of heavy pollution at the airport in Beijing on December 8, 2015. Half of Beijing's private cars were ordered off the streets on December 8 and many construction sites and schools were closed under the Chinese capital's first-ever red alert for pollution. AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

A plane waits to take off on a day of heavy pollution at the airport in Beijing on December 8, 2015. Half of Beijing's private cars were ordered off the streets on December 8 and many construction sites and schools were closed under the Chinese capital's first-ever red alert for pollution. AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

A bird flies over the grounds of the Temple of Heaven.

A bird flies over the grounds of the Temple of Heaven amid heavy air pollution in Beijing on December 8, 2015. Half of Beijing's private cars were ordered off the streets on December 8 and many construction sites and schools were closed under the Chinese capital's first-ever red alert for pollution. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

A bird flies over the grounds of the Temple of Heaven amid heavy air pollution in Beijing on December 8, 2015. Half of Beijing's private cars were ordered off the streets on December 8 and many construction sites and schools were closed under the Chinese capital's first-ever red alert for pollution. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO / AFP / WANG ZHAO (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

The central business district seen in heavy smog on Tuesday morning.

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 08: The Central Business District is seen in heavy smog on December 8, 2015 in Beijing, China. The Beijing government issued a "red alert" for the first time since new standards were introduced earlier this year as the city and many parts of northern China were shrouded in heavy pollution. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 400 units in Beijing, lower than last week, but still nearly 20 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 08: The Central Business District is seen in heavy smog on December 8, 2015 in Beijing, China. The Beijing government issued a "red alert" for the first time since new standards were introduced earlier this year as the city and many parts of northern China were shrouded in heavy pollution. Levels of PM 2.5, considered the most hazardous, crossed 400 units in Beijing, lower than last week, but still nearly 20 times the acceptable standard set by the World Health Organization. The governments of more than 190 countries are meeting in Paris to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

It’s worth noting that while Beijing’s decision to issue a red alert set off a whirlwind of global attention, Delhi, the Indian capital, is also in the throes of its own smog emergency. Around the city, air monitors are posting AQI readings of well over 400.

Additional research by David Wertime and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.  

Top photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan

Beijing’s Taiwan Aggression Has Backfired in Tokyo

Military exercises have stiffened Japanese resolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

How to Take Down a Tyrant

Three steps for exerting maximum economic pressure on Putin.

A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.

Why Doesn’t China Invade Taiwan?

Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, a full-scale invasion remains a risky endeavor—and officials think the island can be coerced into reunification.

Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.
Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.

Russia’s Brutal Honesty Has Destroyed the West’s Appeasers

Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.