Beijing air feels just like home
Seems like my hometown, Skopje, and the city where I currently live, Beijing, have more things in common than I originally thought. One apparent occurrence is that both are heavily polluted, with air quality at the hazardous level.
Beijing to me, among other things, is about pollution. My first impression from this city was – too much smog. For instance, when I went to Tiananmen during my first few days here, I barely got to see Mao’s portrait – I also went to see other landmarks, but to my great disappointment, there was no opportunity for nice touristy photos – everything was smudged into grey mist.
Since then, I have read quite a lot about environment deterioration in China in general, and about pollution in Beijing in particular. I follow the @BeijingAir Twitter account that tweets what is measured by the device set up by American Embassy in Chaoyang [surprisingly, the device is currently down]. I discuss the “miasma” issue actively with people here. Most of the people, at least fellow international and local students, are quite disturbed by it.
The governmental discourse, however, is surprisingly divorced from reality. Officials argue that the air is not that bad, that Beijing has only a “heavy fog” issue rather than smog, and that residents are already used to bad air as China has been polluted for many years now. The government introduced its own standards (measuring only bigger particles) which say the air is much better than the US embassy tweets – however, their measuring device is allegedly located far away from the city core.
Cynics (such as @relevantorgans or China Daily Show) make jokes about Westerners’ “politically unreliable lungs,” say that Beijing’s air is politically correct (Oxygen is on the far right in the periodic system, while metals are on the left) or that is simply “air with Chinese characteristics” (70% air, 30% pollution) and that it “smells like GDP growth.”
To sum up – the American embassy sometimes says that air in Beijing is hazardous beyond index; official statistics say it is less worse; people panic. To me, air in Beijing seems horrible, regardless of what is the official information. You can smell it, and you can taste it. It impairs your vision, and it makes you cough.
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Yet to be honest, it was the pollution and the pollution talk in Beijing that made me sensitive about the question of air. I have never really carried about air quality before moving here. Smog used to remind me only of one issue of the Alan Ford comic. I used to think that the air I had been breathing all my life was.. well, clean.
Imagine my reaction, when couple of weeks ago, the city of Skopje introduced the same type of pollution-measuring website like @BeijingAir, which reported Beijing-level pollution! Since then, there are days when its measurements are worse than the ones that the US embassy reports for Beijing. These last few days, while Beijing’s air was hazardous beyond index, pollution in Skopje was at the upper measurable limit – almost 10 times higher than the “healthy” level determined by the WHO.
When I think better – how often we have had “fog” in Skopje, how many people have respiratory problems and how often people get misdiagnosed with allergies, such numbers just make sense. To make things worse, local authorities went on a tree-cutting rampage in the last few years, attempting to speed up urbanization and make Skopje look “modern.” Toxic industries, to my knowledge, remain largely unregulated and environmental protection remains a non-priority. Many households still use coal for heating. Skopje is already over-populated and urban planning is non-existent.
Friends and family members from back home are, of course, frightened. Macedonian media went on a reporting frenzy on environment. Suddenly, the “fog” became “smog” and it became a top story, which probably increased the panic level [some argued that Skopje is the most polluted city in the world]. When I complained about the air here, it seemed to them that either I was exaggerating, or that it was my problem, and a problem of people far away from home. Now they seem to share the similar concerns with me.
Hence, I am left only with the bitter pleasure of knowing that being in Beijing is not as much unhealthy compared to being back in Skopje. Yet, I will now have to bring my breathing mask with me when I go visit. Maybe bring a few. Maybe start a business with masks.
Finally, It is very interesting to see how environment is being framed as a policy issue or non-issue.
I already described how things are in Beijing – the government tries to downplay its seriousness, locals and expats panic, activists try to utilize every possible opportunity for sounding their concern and anguish. I am skeptical about eventual significant changes in the future. However, a broader discontent is mounting, as there are rumors that the privileges of the CCP elite, among other things, include purified air at their compounds. Having in mind that it was environmental threat and the inadequate policy to address it that led to massive middle class outrage in Dalian, Beijing authorities are probably cautious with the development of the air debate.
In Macedonia, on the other hand, bad air is still not on the agenda, but might be there very soon – yet, I see clues of it being framed in the existing discourse, while not leading to a rise of a green or environmentalist faction. Yet, it seems, the government will have to take some beating for the pollution. Unlike in Beijing, the data on the pollution come from official, domestic sources, hence it would be futile to blame the “West” for conspiracy (even though the incumbent VMRO-DPMNE government often relies to such strategies). Moreover, environmental protection is part of the synchronizing Macedonian and EU legal and policy framework, as the country aspires to become an EU member state, and therefore high standards will have to be considered. However, one aspect that leaves room for suspicion is the “blame-the-past” mentality of VMRO-DPMNE officials – as with other structural problems, such as unemployment or weak international position, it is highly possible that Skopje authorities will spin the debate towards the problem itself, and not towards its solution. In that sense, they will find it convenient to blame previous governments for the current pollution, and avoid discussing future prospects (even though, in Skopje, and especially in the central district, VMRO-DPMNE has ruled longer than the Social democrats). Finally, one must not overlook the possibility for ethnicizing pollution – for instance, blaming authorities in predominantly Albanian municipalities or even ethnic Albanians for the pollution (by for instance, manipulating stereotypes that Albanians burn trees and coal, and act recklessly since they don’t feel Macedonia as their own country, etc). One thing is for sure – little will be done to solve the problem.
Thus, if anyone is interested in the breathing masks business, please let me know.