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Air Today, Gone Tomorrow The pollution in Beijing through January was so bad that it prompted pretty much every expat (and a good many locals) in the city to begin asking various existential questions, the most poignant of which was “why am I [still] here?” Angst and despair, two adjuncts to the aforementioned philosophical quandary, also featured prominently, particularly when the US embassy’s air quality index surged to a record breaking level of near 900 (on a scale of one to 500). Many of the expats who lived in Beijing before the 2008 Olympics evolved a different philosophical approach to Beijing’s air quality issues, that of the Stoics. Back then, there was little that could be done about the smog, so most of us just knuckled down and got on with things, listening to the complaints of newcomers with steely-eyed impassivity, or at least an even-tempered insouciance. But the acrid, throat-burning, eye-irritating haze that descended on Beijing last month could not be ignored. Graphics like those issued by Bloomberg showing the putrid air was worse than that found in an airport smoking lounge were unnecessary. Like an unwanted guest crashing the party, elbowing its way to the front and dominating the conversation, this “airpocalypse” demanded a brusque response. Expats and Chinese alike descended on local department stores in droves, rushing to buy a dwindling supply of air purifiers, as evidenced by the threefold spike in on-the-year sales of the units at various outlets in the capital. Those who could afford to do so installed devices in every room, but at near US$1,000 a piece for some high-end models, not including filters that must be replaced every few months, it’s fair to say they were a privileged few. The rest of us resorted to towing our purifiers around the house, treating them like the faithful electronic pets of some dark dystopian future, or huddled around their life-affirming torrents like cavemen around a fire. Meanwhile, leading multinational companies CHINA WEEKLY I March 2013

Illustration by Xiang Zhaohui

By David Green

The acrid, throat-burning, eyeirritating haze that descended on Beijing last month could not be ignored. with offices in the city responded to calls from the perennially pesky fourth estate (myself included) demanding to know what exactly was being done to protect their staff. The correct policy was, of course, to be installing (or have already installed) purifiers in offices, as has been done by various embassies, the European Chamber and companies such as BMW and Toyota. Others including JPMorgan distributed facemasks to their employees. The same applied to the city’s leading hotels, with boutique establishment The Opposite House moving to set up air purifiers in their rooms as standard, while others including the Hilton Wangfujing claimed their building already incorporated sophisticated air-conditioning systems that also purified the air. At Parkview EAST, the city’s premier new development and the first LEED Platinum certified building to be opened in China, the general manager told me the air was purified to the same extent as that inside a top Western hospital. With rents in the building close to the highest available in the city, one would certainly hope so.

I also visited a so-called “pollution dome” at Dulwich College Beijing, a leading international school in the city’s Shunyi District. This turned out to be an inflatable structure built over a concrete foundation that houses a sophisticated PM2.5 filtration system, allowing the kids to play various indoor sports irrespective of how bad the pollution is outside. Walking through the sealed double doors was like entering a brave new world. My ears popped due to the higher pressure inside, and on the day I visited the air was noticeably cleaner and easier to breathe than that swirling in the snow-drizzled gloaming outside. Recognizing Dulwich was on to a good thing, the International School of Beijing followed suit, recently opening two of its own, even larger domes. For its part, Harrow International School said an air filtration system that will encompass the entirety of a new campus they will move to in March was the single biggest item of expenditure involved in the relocation. Harrow’s approach, cocooning its schoolchildren inside an entirely regulated and purified bubble, calls to mind a bleak future world in which those who can afford it move between highly regulated and insulated spaces because the atmosphere outside, in which the common man is forced to live, is toxic: imagine waking up in an air-purified house, driving to your LEED-certified office in the comfort of your air-conditioned and purified car, before working out within a top gym’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, and then picking up your kids from their hermetically sealed school. You know, while their nanny chokes to death on her bicycle. But this is not some Ballardian vision, but the reality of life for Beijing’s richest. One thing all the above places have in common is their expense, or at least the paying power of their owners, raising the intriguing possibility of China’s capital being the first place on earth where clean air is a commodity available only to those who can afford it. And that, much like Beijing’s bad air, leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth. 

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