A Canadian in Beijing: Digesting the Air in Beijing

Happy Earth Day!

It’s Sunday morning and I am already looking forward to going outside to take a deep breath. I love the weekends in Beijing, not only because I don’t have to go to school, but also because the air is cleaner. Factories are often closed at least one day every weekend and you can see more blue sky and feel a higher oxygen count in the air.

(The above photo was taken a few days ago. During the week, it’s much more grey outside.)

My fellow (Canadian) student and new friend here, David, said it perfectly: “You don’t just breathe the air in Beijing; you digest it.”

He’s so right.

The air quality in this city is atrocious. Internet reports tell me that the air quality in Beijing does more damage to one’s lungs than smoking two packs a day. Most large factories are still burning coal as their main energy source. You can smell and taste the coal dust in the air. That’s what I’m breathing here and there’s not much I can do about it.

Continuing my running effort in this city has been proof. After running, I usually have to cough for a while and I find that there is a greater collection of phlegm in my system than usual.

I’m thinking that this is perhaps why there is so much hacking and spitting in this city! People don’t just spit here; they make deep, guttural sounds to clear their esophagus and then fire huge piles of mucous and saliva onto the sidewalk (or platform or shopping mall floor or out the window of their car onto the street). I have developed an instinct to weave outwards and away from the source of that throat-clearing, body-emptying sound when I hear it. I want to veer from the path of the oncoming phlegm deposit. So far so good!

Many people wear masks when cycling and I believe this helps on the roadways, at least. I will be investing in one for myself this weekend so that I can enjoy cycling with cleaner lungs. At least, slightly. You can filter some air but you’re still ingesting the pollutants no matter what.

One of the English magazines here called Time Out came with an insert flyer for a product called IQAir. It’s a product for air purification designed to filter “99.97% of dust, pollen, pet allergens, smoke, chemicals, gases, odours, spores, bacteria and even viruses.” The pictures on the advertisement are of non-Chinese, Caucasian people and their pets and children. I imagine these kinds of products are very popular here, but I wonder if they’re popular in all communities.

You’d think in a city in which the air quality was the equivalent to smoking nearly two packs of cigarettes a day that people wouldn’t really have the need to smoke! That is, of course, not the case. Smoking is everywhere. The only two places that I have seen ‘No Smoking’ signs (in any language) have been in the subway cars and in the classrooms at the university. You can, however, smoke in the subway walkways and ticket purchase areas and you can also smoke in the hallways at the university. In fact, our dorm rooms simply request that we don’t set the bed on fire.

David told me he quit smoking since coming here and I wondered if he was just trying to neutralize or offset his toxic intake. Sort of like being carbon neutral, if you quit upon arrival to Beijing then your body would probably feel pretty much the same as it did while smoking in Canada and you could feel positive about not making this air quality worse! I’d say it’s pretty hard to quit, though, in a country that so heavily endorses the activity. Malls have full smoking counters (see picture above). Tobacco is available everywhere and it’s pennies a pack.


“Beijingers” are telling me that it’s improved dramatically over the past few years as a result of the Olympics. Pressure from the international community and a commitment to have a “green” Olympics has prompted some serious efforts by the city to plant trees in urban spaces and to convert many coal-powered energy lines to natural gas.

If not the sake of the living world and the survival of our Earth as impetus to clean up an urban environment, the Olympics will do. Good timing on my part.

When travelling out to see the Great Wall two weeks ago, I was amazed at the fields and fields of newly planted trees in the outlying parts of the city, not to mention the incredible use of space. Agricultural fields are now flanked by new trees. New trees line roadways, parking lots, creek beds and narrow strips of land between buildings and crops.

Here in the city, you can likewise see the attempt to plant trees in open spaces. Between the two tallest buildings in Wudaokou, Google and Microsoft, the new trees and tiered flowerbeds create what appears to be a geometric urban park — beautiful as well as functional.

I’ve also heard that factories will be forced to shut down two to three months prior to the Olympic games in 2008. Sounds to me like a last-ditch effort to boost the air quality and reduce the airborne pollutants before the athletes arrive. I’m wondering what these factories and workers will do without productivity and income for as much as three months. Someone suggested they thought that the government would probably compensate the businesses during this time. I wonder why the powers-that-be don’t just help businesses to convert to cleaner, greener practises in the first place. But, coal is a huge industry here, so that suggestion is a surface one in a much deeper and more layered problem that starts and ends with money. Don’t they all?

This Washington Post
article talks about the efforts made by the government to “green” this city before summer, 2008. (These days, the colour green has become a verb!) It says that “about 190 steel, cement, chemical, paper and other factories have been dismantled piece by piece and moved away from the city and surrounding areas. Nearly 680 mines in the vicinity have been shut down. Some 4,000 buses and 30,000 taxis with high emissions were retired, and the government is discouraging driving.” Well, I’m not sure about the latter point considering how many cars I see on the road, but it’s good to hear those stats nonetheless.

Will the city continue with this “green focus” after the international community has turned off the spotlight on Beijing?

One can only hope.