Tea Leaf Nation
Being Proletarian During Beijing’s Airpocalypse
Wealth, salary, and age affected how Beijingers experienced the capital's choking pollution.
BEIJING, CHINA — On Dec. 8, a Tuesday, a man surnamed Cao piloted his electric scooter along Beijing’s profoundly hazy streets, parking in front of one towering apartment complex after another to deliver packages. Although the government had just issued a “red alert” level pollution warning, part of a forecast that small deadly pollutants would raise the air quality index to hazardous levels, Cao wasn’t wearing a mask. Government measures connected to the alert ultimately kept half the city’s privately owned cars off the roads and led to the closure of nearly all public schools for three days. But Cao, a courier for the popular Chinese online shopping company JD who declined to give his first name, kept at his work, and he needed to speak without a filter getting in the way. “I have to call customers on their apartment intercoms before I bring their deliveries up,” he explained. In the midst of some of the worst pollution China’s capital city has seen in 2015, the gulf between the way that workers like Cao and middle and upper-class Chinese experience the smog have revealed the gap that separates rich and poor in this highly unequal city.
Then there was Bai, a boy in the sixth grade who also spent hours on smoggy sidewalks Tuesday afternoon, doling out brochures for air purifiers along with his mother, Jia, who declined to give their full names. The two stood in front of the luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel near Beijing’s bustling central Wangfujing shopping street, approaching passersby to describe the makes and models listed on the flyers. “The pollution is a big problem today, because the kids don’t go to school,” Jia said during a lull in the foot traffic. “I have a mask,” Bai interjected, pointing to the flimsy piece of cloth strapped to his face.
In particular, the Beijing municipal government’s imploring of residents to keep their children home, along with the decision by most public schools to cancel classes from Tuesday to Thursday, posed a quandary for parents who are paid by the hour, or cannot telecommute. Gloria Chyou, a Chinese-American mother of three who lives in Beijing, was required to keep her children, who attend Chinese public school, home. She had also also decided to let her children miss a day of school during the week prior, when pollution levels were also exceedingly high, but no red alert warning was issued. “My boys told me that the aerobics teacher opened a window, and another teacher turned off the air purifier in the afternoon because it was so loud” during the lesson. She added her daughter’s classroom didn’t even have a purifier. That made many parents glad for the red alert-related cancellation of classes, but it was disruptive, Chyou said. “It definitely was a bit of an inconvenience because almost all Chinese parents work.”
Finding and paying for childcare was not an issue for Chyou, who owns her own company, but others have had to scramble. “One of our kids’ friends came over for the day when his mom had a meeting she couldn’t miss,” Chyou said. Other families have relied on grandparents to step in. Still other parents, like Jia, simply kept their child by their side.
Of course, some children will be just as exposed to pollution at home as they might have been at school. Gabriella Chau runs a small pizzeria, which has air purifiers inside. But Chau said employees at a restaurant like hers, not to mention many typical office workers, struggle to save up enough to equip their own homes with even a run-of-the-mill air purifier. “A normal air cleaning machine is about $150,” which can eat up one-third of the monthly pay of some workers in Beijing. “Clean air and water is a basic need,” Chau complained, “not a good or service that we should be paying for.” Far cheaper alternatives are available, though quality varies; some higher-end units carry price tags over $1,000.
There’s also a generation divide between those who want to escape the smoggy air and those who don’t see the need. Beijing’s Internet-savvy millennials have taken to Instagram and local social networks like WeChat to post numerous grey skied photos captioned with black humor. But their parents or grandparents, more steeped in old Chinese propaganda, react differently. Elisa Shou, who works in marketing, said she had acquired a bad cough and even wore a mask while she slept, but had trouble convincing her mother the pollution was real; “she thinks it is just cloudy.”
During one day of the red alert, the only people in an otherwise vacant Beijing park were a contingent of devoted retirees partaking in dance classes, music lessons, or leisurely strolls, all in spite of the smog. Sixty-five-year-old Xing Zhao and 59-year-old Ms. Hu, who declined to give her first name, sat in one of the park’s aged pagodas in order to sing songs and play the traditional erhu fiddle. At the end of each tune they both hacked and wheezed. “My health isn’t that great, but I find singing helps me feel better,” said Hu, before coughing again. But she did not blame the air quality, saying: “I don’t feel like there’s that much pollution.”
Elvis Young, another Chinese millennial who works at Beijing’s electrical state grid, said such contrasts were bound to occur, considering the pace of China’s recent economic development, which has given the younger generation access to technology and information that their elders never had. “Young Chinese people can more easily get relevant information in the Internet age,” he said, while prior generations have had more exposure to tightly messaged state TV broadcasts and newspapers.
But Ann Lee, an expert on China’s economic relations and a professor at New York University, disagrees. She thinks public awareness about the reality of Beijing pollution is already “almost universal,” given drastic measures the Beijing government took as far back as 2008 to ensure blue skies before and during the Olympic Games. “The problem,” Lee said, “is that the lower class folks care more about making a living than breathing cleaner air.”
A tipping point will approach, Lee said, but it may not yet have arrived. (The pollution in Beijing has since subsided from red-alert levels.) “The local people have gotten used to the grey skies, just like Londoners got used to the London fog when soot came out of chimneys.” Lee said, adding: “When the problem can no longer be ignored, the government and the companies will step in to speed up the necessary changes. But it never happens overnight.”