Tea Leaf Nation

Smog Day, School’s Out

China’s government once denied its pollution problem. Now it’s forecasting air quality to help keep Beijing residents safer.

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 08:  A Chinese girl wears a mask to protect against pollution as she is carried in a shopping district 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: A Chinese girl wears a mask to protect against pollution as she is carried in a shopping district 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 — Growing up in Virginia, we’d get the occasional blizzard, and as a child one of my great joys was waking up to see the streets buried in snow. I’d run to the television and turn on the local news, hoping to see Fairfax among the counties that had declared a snow day. Though it rarely snows in Beijing, where I now live, Chinese children can now rely on something else to get them out of school: smog.

On Dec. 6, I received a text message from China Mobile, the state-owned telecommunications company, that began, “Beijing Heavy Air Pollution Emergency Management Bureau issues orange alert.” Due to heavy pollution, went the announcement, primary and secondary classes would be cancelled from Dec. 7 to Dec. 9, and all outdoor construction halted. Then, late on the evening of Dec. 7, China Mobile texted again to say that the alert had been upgraded to the highest level, red, the first time Beijing officials had ever issued it. From early morning on Dec. 8 until noon on Dec. 10, traffic restrictions would be added to the prior proscriptions, effectively taking half of the city’s private cars and 30 percent of its government vehicles off the road. Children would get an extra smog day — like a snow day, but with less outdoor frolicking and more indoor studying.

Despite the miserable air quality — concentration of harmful PM2.5 particulate matter was over  10 times the World Health Organization’s recommended upper limit — the red alert in fact represents a high water mark in the Chinese government’s response to air pollution: a gradual evolution from denial, to reluctant admissions, to forecasting pollution using satellites and computer models.

It wasn’t long ago that the Chinese government refused to acknowledge publicly that smog even existed. As late as 2011, it was still calling the stifling haze “fog,” adding a naturalistic gloss to what was clearly the result of coal-fired power plants and heavy industry. In early 2012, after pressure from citizens, the government reluctantly began releasing its own air pollution readings, which consistently fell short of measurements by the U.S. embassy in Beijing. When citizens noticed this discrepancy, the Chinese government demanded the embassy stop publishing its readings, calling it interference in China’s “internal affairs.” But since President Xi Jinping took power in late 2012, both he and Premier Li Keqiang have made combating pollution a priority. Since then, awareness of air pollution has gone mainstream. Air masks have become a fashion statement; city residents compare air purifiers; and Chinese with means are leaving the country to escape the air. Although the government still makes the occasional ham-fisted attempt to block information about pollution, there’s no going back.

Today, apps like Baidu Maps report the severity of pollution, sending me push messages reminding me to wear my air pollution mask. The government’s air quality readings are widely available and have inched closer and closer to the U.S. embassy’s. Viewed in this context, the first-ever red alert was an unprecedented step toward transparency and a proactive handling of the pollution problem. Meanwhile, half a world away in Paris, China and the United States have signed onto an historical climate agreement among 195 countries that builds upon the United States and China’s November 2014 bilateral accord. Then again, as expected, China secured exceptions for developing countries, which it considers itself to be, and it continues to burn through massive amounts of coal to underwrite its economic growth.

The day before the red alert went into effect, I had lunch with my relatives, who are dyed-in-the-wool Beijingers, and the subject of pollution came up after I noticed their top-of-the-line air purifier. My uncle regurgitated the same reason the Chinese government uses to justify its carbon output: that it is hypocritical for developed countries that polluted for over a century to curb developing countries like China.

To my uncle, pollution was almost a badge of honor, a symbol of China’s defiance of the West. Why else would he make the argument that every country should have its turn to destroy the planet? To him, the most important thing was fairness, not the environment. Developed countries — first and foremost the United States, as the argument goes — have to take the lead; if the United States doesn’t cut back, the Chinese will see any sacrifice on their part as caving to American hypocrisy.

At noon on Dec. 10, as the red alert was ending, the PM 2.5 index dropped to 24, as if on cue. The latest threat was over, though it is always just a matter of time before the next alert.

Still, if we must have pollution in China, I’d rather the government warn me when it’s coming. I’d rather have smog days and driving restrictions than go back to living in denial. Yet I hate to think that, in the future, Chinese schoolchildren eager for a day off might look at the smoggy night sky with anticipation, the way I looked at the first flurries of a blizzard, hoping against hope for the pollution to worsen.

Image: Getty Images

George Ding is a freelance writer in Beijing. Twitter: @dingsanbai

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