The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Beijing Air Pollution: Beyond 'Crazy Bad'

The U.S. embassy in Beijing has been monitoring the air quality in the city since 2008. In November 2010, a State Department employee, startled when meter crept above 500—the very top of the EPA’s Air Quality Index standard—tweeted that the quality was ‘crazy bad’. Though the undiplomatic tweet was quickly removed, and the ‘crazy bad’ phrase has never again appeared in any materials produced by the embassy, the incident was remembered by Beijing’s residents and China watchers.

Yesterday, the meter went way beyond ‘crazy bad’, hitting 755 at 8pm. The New York Times writes up the reactions:

“This is a historic record for Beijing,” Zhao Jing, a prominent Internet commentator who uses the pen name Michael Anti, wrote on Twitter. “I’ve closed the doors and windows; the air purifiers are all running automatically at full power.”

Other Beijing residents online described the air as “postapocalyptic,” “terrifying” and “beyond belief.”

Today’s Beijing is reminiscent in some ways of London: when it was among the world’s most industrialized cities, London was subject to frequent pea soup fogs in which you could not see your hand in front of your face. London fogs were infamous worldwide.

Beijing has some of the world’s greatest and most compelling contemporary architecture—but on many days you can’t see it because of the choking, thick smog that settles over the city for days at a time. The air becomes smelly and hard to breathe.

London eventually cleaned up its air and washed the layers of soot and grime off its ancient monuments. Let’s hope the same thing happens in Beijing. And soon. Air quality like this is staggeringly bad for human health; there are already cases of foreign workers refusing transfers to places that compromise their health and that of their families.

China is moving rapidly toward a level of development at which its citizens won’t tolerate this kind of poison in the air they breathe, and making quick environmental progress is going to be key to the success of the new leadership team.

Hint: one of the ways London cleaned up its act was the replacement of coal by cleaner fuels. Time for the same approach in Beijing?

Published on January 13, 2013 10:15 am