Beijing: The Air we Breath


 The Air we Breath

‘Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.’ Jacques-Yves Cousteau 

You can feel it in your lungs and smell it in the air, a grey mist before one’s eyes that hangs between the trees- this is not a glitzy 1920’s party or a nightclub smoke machine on overdrive, but the all encompassing, all powerful Beijing smog. A cancerous fog that possesses the power to close schools and cancel countrywide flights.

Black particles found in tissue after blowing one’s nose, coughing, wheezing and awakening daily with a sore throat – these are just a handful of the short term symptoms of living in a city engulfed by pollution. With the number of cancer cases in Beijing doubling in the last ten years, the local cost of cancer care reaching almost as high as house prices and many cancer patients selling their homes to pay for treatment, the longer term effects look yet bleaker.

Whilst doctors the world over promote the merits of exercise, in Beijing a brisk stroll to the shops, or – as favoured by many elderly men and women in China – a nightly square dance in the park with friends, may prove fatal during periods when the concentration of PM 2.5 (particulate matter – a generic term used to indicate fine particle matter able to penetrate the lungs) is particularly high. Faster movement requires faster, deeper breathing and thus, the potential for inhaling harmful substances increases with exercise. Studies have even shown that for pregnant women the effect of living in a high PM environment is the equivalent – or even worse depending on pollution levels – to that of inhaling second-hand smoke, causing low birth weight, increasing the risk of autism and infant mortality and impacting infant intelligence levels.

Yet, while PM indicator apps have become popular, with most staying inside on smoggy days and respiratory mask sales reaching an all time high as face masks become the new lipstick, information on how to protect against poor air quality remains relatively scarce. Large red governmental banners encouraging residence to ‘reduce outdoor activity’ (减少户外活动) hang outside some residential complexes and social media articles are shared among friends to inform of the need for children to wear respiratory masks and of the government’s attempts to class pollution as a ‘meteorological disaster’, yet; many can still be seen bracing the smog in the hope of reveling in the joys of a morning run.

However, as factories begrudgingly begin to move away from China’s capital and trees are planted in their place, mesmerizing blue and pink skies have started to enrapture Beijingers on their evening walks home even in the December months.

Sadly, the same can probably not be said of the inhabitants of Chinese cities, such as Tangshan, now the involuntary hosts of Beijing’s ‘PM makers’ of old…

Will the Chinese be left with a humanitarian crisis on their hands, or has the image of local pollution simply been misunderstood and manipulated by foreign journalists hungry for hyperbole? Is enough being done to improve air quality in East Asia? What effective measures ought to be taken?  How does London during the Industrial Revolution, ‘when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets’, compare to modern day Beijing?




‘Like a man who has been dying for many days, a man in your city is numb to the stench.’ Chief Seattle



Many flights from southern cities, such as, Yichang and Haikou, towards northern cities such as Beijing are regularly cancelled due to smoggy weather conditions in the North.


‘Even on ordinary days, the capital’s atmosphere is often so thick that you have to chew before inhaling, though I suppose you could argue that it’s good that you can see what you’re eating. Despite the pollution, I still loved the place, even though it often appeared to be run by madmen.’
Tom Carter



‘Airpocalypse’ a PM 2.5 calculator app popular among expats in China has a humourous take on pollution.

‘Destruction is a man’s will,
Nevertheless prevention is also a man’s will,
Its a man’s choice to choose between destruction and prevention.’ 
Babu Rajan


13 thoughts on “Beijing: The Air we Breath

  1. Hi Rachel,
    What a surprise to see your photo! I haven’t seen one of your excellent posts in ages.
    BTW London was once famous for its ‘thick-as-pea-soup-smog’. I still have a jacket I bought in 1980 with the brand name ‘London Fog’…
    China is a massive, rapidly developing economy and already the Chinese are at the forefront developing and utilising new technologies to counter climate-change.
    Australia (where I am), on the other hand, is pursuing a very self-centred course in this (and other) regards.
    Best wishes

  2. An insightful post. I first went to Beijing almost 20 years ago and each time I go back I notice the smog more and more. 20 years ago I basically was one of a handful of tourists now when I get back the number of domestic tourists is overwhelming all aspects of the city.

  3. Pingback: City Smog | Gdicm

  4. Really interesting post. I hope China continues to tackle the pollution. Since moving to NZ from the UK I noticed that the air seems cleaner but I think that is because of fewer people…not by design. I am not sure people can change fast enough to create a clean world…but I hope we do.

  5. Those face masks really helped while in Beijing! Unfortunately I think it will take time before solutions to reduce smog take effect. Air quality issues have consistently been a part of any nation’s quick industrial growth.

  6. I certainly was affected by the pollution whilst living in Beijing. But there are so many other provinces that are not affected by the smog and are fantastic to visit and you can breathe freely. It’s wonderful. And on it’s good day(s), it was so nice to see blue skies in Beijing after the winds from Inner Mongolia. Lovely!!

  7. Pingback: “Beijing smog. A cancerous fog that possesses the power to close schools and cancel countrywide flights.” – The Sarcastic Cynic™

  8. Pingback: Beijing: The Air we Breath — Globe Drifting – lovehappinessandpeace

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