What It’s Like to Live Where It’s Not Even Safe to Breathe

Locals were once outraged about China's poisonous air — now it’s disturbingly normal.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
ZAOZHUANG, CHINA - JANUARY 03:  A traffic policeman regulates traffic in heavy smog on January 3, 2017 in Zaozhuang, China. Anhui issues an orange alert of fog at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
ZAOZHUANG, CHINA - JANUARY 03: A traffic policeman regulates traffic in heavy smog on January 3, 2017 in Zaozhuang, China. Anhui issues an orange alert of fog at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

It was a 20-minute walk from one New Year’s Day gathering to the other, but none of us wanted to risk it. Outside, Beijing was smothered in the worst smog of the winter, so that every breath, even behind my filtered mask, had the sour chemical taste of a freshly bleached bathroom. We saw the red “For Hire” sign of the cab through the haze and bundled in.

Half the invitees had begged off from the party, preferring the relative safety of sealed apartments to attempting to find somewhere amid the poison dust. Others had the perma-cold that grips many of us in northern Chinese winters, with sore throats that are unable to heal. The last new year I’d spent 40 minutes searching for a friend’s apartment block that I’d been to a half-dozen times before, unable to make out any landmarks amid the haze. Beijing city blocks are undistinguishable even on clear days, but now they were just smudges of thicker gray.

Inside, on the 16th floor, all we could make out of Beijing were the lights of cars on the motorway below and a few neon building signs. Seasoned veterans, we compared air filters and masks. Ben, fresh from the bluer skies of Fuzhou in the south, had brought along a Laser Egg — an oval air-quality monitor small enough to be held by hand — to show our hostess. “195 inside,” he said. We were reassured that the air we were breathing was merely “unhealthy,” not off-scale like outdoors. “Watch, we can make it lower,” Ben said, flicking a switch. “There you go, now it shows the Chinese measurement scale.” The number dropped by 40 points or so. “I was talking to the guy who created this, and he said they had to make sure that the Chinese scale came first, or it would never be approved for sale.”

But we soon moved on to other topics — architecture, dating, U.S. policing, early education, weddings. Perhaps we shouldn’t have. Outside, the air was so curdled with pollutants that unprecedented volcanic reactions were taking place, smearing sulphur over the city. We live somewhere where it isn’t safe to breathe, where every winter day scratches away at our lungs, where rich schoolchildren play soccer underneath sealed domes. And yet, on days that were just 200 or 300 on the AQI scale — unhealthy, or very unhealthy, days that would cause a public crisis in New York or London or even Los Angeles — we treat them as just gloomy weather.

In China’s north, even the worst days have been normalized, worked into a routine of filters, masks, and checks. In 2012, things seemed very different. That was when the public — prompted in part by the U.S. Embassy’s publication of pollution information, one of the most successful U.S.-Sino diplomatic initiatives ever — began demanding change. As the Chinese took to social media to angrily share pollution figures, the government was forced to listen. Unlike beaten peasants or poisoned village soil, after all, the air couldn’t be ignored. It crept into the homes of the urban “middle class” — the foundation of support for Chinese government — and snuck its tendrils around Zhongnanhai, the imperial palace where China’s top leaders live. Newspapers dropped the euphemisms of “fog” and “mist” and named the problems with relatively openness. I learned the Chinese for “Britain’s Clean Air Act” because so many of my friends were posting about it. There was no escaping the “airpocalypse,” as a newly coined term went. Eventually, the government stopped denying the problem and began to issue proper data, smog warnings, and traffic and factory shutdowns.

The figures showed slow improvement for a few years after the disasters of 2012. So far this winter, they’ve been worse again, the north locked into a spiral of airborne shit circling around Hebei, Beijing, and Tianjin. Yet the arrival of regular data on everyone’s phones showing today’s disastrous PM2.5 figures — tiny particles that are the main risk to health — no longer stoke much public anger. Rather, China’s acknowledgment of the problem has served to normalize it, to make the poisoned air seem like something controllable and manageable and understandable. At the same time, the small spaces won for free discussion in China about the causes of the crisis began to be closed off, as the government took over the rhetoric of air control for itself.

It doesn’t take dictatorship to normalize environmental disaster, of course. London’s “fog” was an acceptable hazard for decades. “I lost my dog in a deep deep smog, in a deep deep smog in London,” my grandmother would sing to me, once a music hall favorite. The stone buildings in my hometown, Manchester, are still marked from the dirt of factories past. It took 12,000 deaths — on a timescale of days, not years — to finally rouse the British.

But what’s new in Beijing is the resulting market. My friend Meng bought a 5,000 yuan — an average Beijinger’s monthly salary — air filter for every room of her apartment. The front of every 24-hour store has a rack of masks promising “special protection from PM2.5” and “new filter elements.” Smog has crept into being a natural hazard, something that good citizens work around. The Beijing municipal government classified it as a “metrological disaster” a few weeks ago — like a tornado or a hurricane.

It’s doubtful how much these protective measures actually work. Testing by the Beijing News showed that less than half of all masks on the market gave any real protection — and only 20 percent for the ones marketed at children. The efficacy of filters, and whether you need a serious beast of a machine or can slap together one from a do-it-yourself kit, is heavily debated.

And it’s almost impossible for us to take on board the toll. We know that the air kills at least a million Chinese a year. We know that it batters at kids’ developing lungs, that asthma rates are through the roof, that each day we breathe is another notch of our chances of cancer. But outside of the worst days, it’s easy to push that out of our minds, to reduce it to the distant realm of statistics rather that the reality of our own likely sickness. It’s often hard to pin down a culprit. Was my friend Ian Sherman’s death from lung cancer at 36 the result of years of Beijing life, or even longer years of smoking, or the sheer bad luck of the genetic dice?

The poor, of course, don’t get even the illusion of control. Security guards and street vendors spend all day outside, even when the air is eye-wateringly bad. Even a cheap air purifier is an unaffordable extravagance, especially when the cost of replacing filters and the steep rise in electric bills is taken into account. It would be a mistake to assume public indignation has dissipated. The brief window allowed for discussion of Chai Jing’s groundbreaking documentary, Under the Dome, which showed that people were still eager to talk about the problem. But the winter airpocalypse has become a seasonal event, not a catastrophe.

This is a northern Chinese story, but it’s one the entire world will soon face. Not from the air, probably, but from the slow disasters of climate change — of flooded basements and harsh summers and crop failures — the things we’ll be shocked by at first but then come to accept and work around, not fight. We’ll mentally rescale, turning the once unacceptable into the merely bad.

And yet, when a break does come, it’s all the sweeter. For a couple of blissful days last week, high winds blew the smog away and the skies opened up blue and clear. By the gate of Houhai, one of the city’s prettiest parks, I rejoiced with a stranger, a middle-aged man out walking his dogs. We marveled at the sight of the mountains that surround Beijing, but which are usually invisible in the haze.

“Look!” he said, gesturing to the edge of the city. “You can see the Western hills! When the big wind comes, everything bad is blown away”

Photo credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer