The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Beijing Flashback: “Every Breath You Take”

In Looney Tunes to establish that something was really hot, they’d show the mercury in a glass thermometer rise, reach the top, and then burst. The viewer would have no idea what the exact temperature was but would know that it was really, effin’ hot. One of the days I was in Beijing was like that but with pollution.

In Beijing, the official Air Pollution Index (API) for December 28th was 500. Of course, the scale stops at 500 so the pollution could have been much worse. If Beijing were set in a Looney Tunes cartoon the pollution gauge would have exploded—appropriately spilling pollutants everywhere. Granted, you should always take the official Chinese API numbers with a degree of skepticism. Even a quick glance at the numbers shows that the data has been distorted, but of course, it’s skewed to make Beijing seem safer. For instance, there are many, many more days ranked in the high 90s than in the low 100s. This is an incredible statistical anomaly as one would expect the days above and below 100 to be evenly distributed. But while I was in Beijing, not even the Chinese government could downplay the pollution, scoring my first full day in Beijing a 421 and my second day a whopping 500. To put this in perspective, an API above 100 is considered a bad day and above 300 is considered “hazardous” and constitutes “emergency conditions” in the U.S.

A common response in China when one’s asked why one smokes is “because it’s the only time during the day I get to breathe through a filter.” As I meandered through the hutongs of Beijing, I began to seriously wonder if starting a temporary smoking habit might be good for my health. During my first three days in Beijing I could barely see across the street, and when I got back to where I was staying after walking around outside, I could smell the pollution on my clothes as if I’d just gotten back from a smoky bar. If the wind didn’t kick in to blow the pollution across the Pacific on the 29th, I’d probably have cancer.

I kind of wanted to have a few global warming skeptics with me so I could point to the thick, grey clouds all around me and yell angrily with exaggerated gesticulations, “How could this not be screwing up the environment?” Part of me secretly hopes, there’s a day like this during the Olympics. They’d have to cancel all the events, and there’d be an international outrage that might push China towards adopting some longer term pollution controls. However, I don’t think it’s likely as China has learned how to control the weather, has halted all construction in Beijing, and has the power to shut down all the factories in the region if necessary. These are clever—if Draconian—short-term solutions that could work during the Olympics. But if they don’t adopt long-term solutions, instead of being reminiscent of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Beijing will begin to resemble the city in The Lorax.

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One Response

  1. Alex says:

    I am counting on this smog to give me the low sexy growl of a septuagenarian blues singer by the time I am 25. I do it for the ladies.

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