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Beautiful Beijing

by marco Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 at 09:57:40 AM EST

I moved to Beijing this May, and this summer has been a descent into hell, in terms of temperature, humidity, and, as it turns out, air pollution.

The past few days have been god-awful bad.  Walk five minutes to the bus stop and you're drenched in your own sweat.

But what has been perhaps more disturbing is the thick, jet gray color of the sky/air/smog.  Ironically, I remember being surprised to see the full moon on Sunday night, a rare sight indeed in urban China.  But that was temporary respite.

front-paged by afew

Today, I checked out the U.S. Embassy's website that posts the Air Quality Index (as calculated according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) for Beijing from atop the embassy roof.

Before I tell you what today's AQI for Beijing is, have a look at this table:

Now look at what the AQI for California was as of yesterday, 2010 July 30 around 18:00:

You'll see on the following city by city breakdown that the highest AQI in California was about 145~150 (in Fresno).

I remembered that when the AQI gets into the high 100's and into the 200's, I should start worrying.

But even with the nastiness we've been having the past few days, I did not imagine that Beijing's AQI this morning would hit...  356 - Dangerous!

Or as the EPA AirNow website explains for the 300~500 range (the highest one they have):

Health warnings of emergency conditions.  The entire population is more likely to be affected.*

*i.e. not just "members of sensitive groups"

Actually, as I wrote this diary, it started to drizzle outside, and paradoxically the gray has started to dissipate to let in some sunlight.  It seems that rain washes away the grub from the air.

And indeed, when my flatmate checked the AQI for Beijing again, we saw that it had gone from 356 at 10:00 AM this morning, to 232 at 11:00 AM.

So now we are only 100+ points higher than the worst place in California, instead of 200+ points higher, putting us at Unhealthy:

Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.

In fact, I believe the most dangerous components of the pollution measured by the AQI in Beijing -- which is calculated based on five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide -- are invisible.

In particular, Fine particles (PM2.5):

Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are called "fine" particles. These particles are so small they can be detected only with an electron microscope. Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes.

I was planning to take some photos of all this ungodly airborne nastiness and add them to this diary later.  But if the rain keeps up, we may actually have some clear(er) skies today.

In the mean time, you can get an idea for what it looks like with this 2008 July photo from Brian Micklethwait's blog --

-- which is not far from where I live, and this photo taken by James Fallows in 2009 January:

Actually, the air does not look nearly as bad as it does in these photos most of the time.  But in the last few days, I bet I could have taken a few shots that came close if not matched these two.  And even on gorgeous cloudless, smogless days -- rare though they be -- you gotta wonder about those PM2.5 particles and other invisible lovelies.

Did the air in European cities during the Industrial Revolution get as bad as this?

as of 2 PM local time.

Seems a "cool" front has moved in, sweeping away all the trash:

End of heatwave in sight for north China | Xinhua

... The CMO [Central Meteorological Observatory] forecast said hot weather in most of north China would dissipate under a cool front around July 31, but the south region will continue to sweat it out. ...

Thank God.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 02:55:41 AM EST
London Smog was legendary amongst my grandparents' generation:


They claim it was far worse at various times before 52. Of course, the extra ingredient in London was the mix of smog and fog which really makes it hard to see...

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 03:32:23 AM EST
I can remember a few pea soupers as a kid in Leicester. Maybe early 50s.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 07:41:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My only advice : Wear a face mask and plan to leave.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 07:12:46 AM EST
Helen: Wear a face mask

You mean a gas mask.  Yeah, that may be a good idea actually.

plan to leave.

Nay.  Some things are worth shortening your life for.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 07:35:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Some things may indeed be worth risking your life for, but few are worth leaving yourself facing decades of debilitating lung disorder. I've seen the documentaries about coal miners and "The dust" and it ain't pretty. I speak as someone who was given a legal admission of liability for asbestos contamination by a previous employer and it's not fun always wondering if any shortness of breath you suffer is a beginning of something. You are not unbreakable.

Definitely wear a face mask at least to filter out the particulate pollution, although I have a vague memory that the govt discourage them for bringing them into disrepute.

But nothing, really nothing is worth the risk you're taking with your long term health.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 08:17:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I was a bit too glib in my reply, though that is the implicit principle by which I'm here.

The sorts of documentaries and personal testimonials you raise are precisely one of the things that we need more of in China to influence public opinion and government policy.  Both the public and the government here are susceptible to such influence, but I get the impression that there is a filter and/or bottleneck on getting such material widely disseminated.  The great dams along the Yangtze may serve as a useful analogy here:  so much pressure behind the wall, how do you allow a steady but controlled amount to flow through and have effective impact, without letting the dam burst open a chaotic and destructive flood?  That is the Propaganda Ministry's tricky, delicate task.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 08:38:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
OK I'll bite.

What are those things? Why are you there?

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Wed Aug 4th, 2010 at 10:58:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
hardly an original notion, but I'm betting that if China does not collapse, then:

   Britain:19th century::USA:20th century::China:21st century

aside from that, China's cultural impact on the world, especially Asia, has been so huge historically that it's worth living here to understand this culture and society up close and personal (though arguably, what exists in contemporary China is a pale, even twisted, shadow of the earlier incarnations of Chinese society that had such influence).

also, this is a unique window in which China is unusually receptive to foreign ideas, in particular, progressive ones that will benefit the entire planet.  once China has settled in to its position as the world's new "Big Asshole Boss", chances are it will be far less open to constructive input from self-appointed foreign advice-givers-who-know-best.

more practically, here i can make ends meet for a lot longer on my dwindling pool of savings.

finally, this is an incredibly exciting, stimulating and fun place to be right now:  it's almost impossible to get bored.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Thu Aug 5th, 2010 at 04:50:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
it was worse in the past. air quality was better in beijing in 2003 than it was in 1997, and a friend living there now assures me that, while utterly toxic, it seems better to him than when we were there in 2003. it took me a couple weeks to hack out the shanghai air last summer, after a  month there.

i remember being in xi'an in 97, and having trouble seeing across a major intersection. of course, seoul was similarly opaque back then, and apparently it has much improved since. so there's still some hope for chinese air one day becoming breatheable.

the fact that 1/2 the water is unfit for drinking, and a quarter unfit for industrial use, is a bit more unsettling.

by wu ming on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 08:57:02 AM EST
though living here, i forgot it.

since 2007, i've lived in Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province, just south of Shanghai) for a year, and Chengdu (Sichuan Province, in the southwest of the country) for six months, and while i was appalled by the pollution in those two places on many an occasion, they did not compare to what i've seen here this summer.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Sat Jul 31st, 2010 at 09:41:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
i was last in chengdu in '99, do they still have trees and old wooden buildings? it used to be a charming city, no idea if anything is left, you know how china is.

the really bad air is in poorer inland places, where they burn more coal: xi'an, changsha, chongqing, chengde, and most of the north china plain were all positively noxious. and, of course, beijing during a sandstorm is asphyxiating, if fun in a sort of apocalyptic sort of way.

by wu ming on Sun Aug 1st, 2010 at 10:55:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a photo of just outside what was then called Peking, a farmer with his ox cart in a slightly rural scene and setting sun. And really foul, coal-dusty air, so that it's hard to see clearly.

That was taken in the late '70s.

by Mnemosyne on Sun Aug 1st, 2010 at 01:52:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The market will make it right :P
by njh on Sun Aug 1st, 2010 at 07:53:30 PM EST
Nobody in China is stupid enough to believe such a thing.  Certainly not the central government.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.
by marco on Sun Aug 1st, 2010 at 09:09:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the building of the subway is a good sign, the insistence on building more roads and encouraging car use, particularly in light of the traditional walkable, bikable city, not.
by njh on Sun Aug 1st, 2010 at 09:43:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the insistence on building more roads and encouraging car use

These are not necessarily the same.  In fact, in Beijing the government actively tries to reduce the number of cars on the road.

You may find the following somewhat encouraging as well:

China erected more wind turbines in 2009 than any other country and may install a record 18 gigawatts of wind-power capacity in 2010*, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates show. ...

China, the world's biggest polluter, may spend about 5 trillion yuan ($738 billion) in the next decade developing cleaner sources of energy to reduce emissions from burning oil and coal, a government official said. ...

The world's fastest-growing major economy will get more than 11 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels by 2015, according to a statement released by the National Energy Administration today. That compares with about 8 percent currently, Jiang said at a media briefing.

The government wants about 15 percent of its energy to come from non-fossil fuels by 2020.

Coal will meet 63 percent of the nation's energy needs by 2015, down from 70 percent last year, as China increases investment in clean energy, according to the energy administration statement. ...

China May Spend $738 Billion on Clean Energy Projects - BusinessWeek

Encouraging maybe, but maybe too little, too late.

Still, quoting ARGeezer's sig line quoting the embattled Dutch:

     "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."


*A lot (though I don't know what percentage) of the wind turbines that are built in China are not immediately connected to the country's electric grid.  However, the government has regulations in place requiring that these "orphaned" wind farms get connected as soon as possible, and that electric power companies source as much energy asthey can from wind turbines as soon as they are accessible.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Mon Aug 2nd, 2010 at 02:51:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
These are not necessarily the same.

Well generally goods are not time sensitive to the same level as passengers, so road improvements overwhelmingly encourage private car use, but only weakly induce truck use.  Trucks go where they are needed, cars trips spread out to make the commute take 45 minutes.

by njh on Mon Aug 2nd, 2010 at 09:43:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Still, quoting ARGeezer's sig line quoting the embattled Dutch:

     "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

This is actually a quote from William of Orange, (yes, a Dutch) who is reported to have said: "One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere."

(Often reported in its original French: "Point n'est espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour persévérer".

by Bernard (bernard) on Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 at 04:56:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I had been looking for the original source of that quote!

The English Wikiquote page references Edmund Wilson, but the Dutch Wikiquote page provides no source:

     Het is niet nodig te hopen om te ondernemen, noch te slagen om te volharden.

Nomad or Nanne, any idea of the authenticity of this version, or if it's apocryphal?

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 at 05:26:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
He was "from" the province of Orange in south central France, IIRC. I don't know how Orange came by its name or how he came by his Dutch affiliation, but before Louis XIV there were considerable numbers of Protestants scattered about France.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 at 10:19:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Orange, Vaucluse - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Roman Orange was founded in 35 BC by veterans of the Second legion[citation needed] as Arausio (after the local Celtic water god), or Colonia Julia Firma Secundanorum Arausio in full, "the Julian colony of Arausio established by the soldiers of the second legion." The name was originally unrelated to that of the orange fruit (Sanskrit nāraṅgaḥ), but was later conflated with it. (see Orange (word))

A previous Celtic settlement with that name existed in the same place and a major battle, which is generally known as the Battle of Arausio, had been fought in 105 BC between two Roman armies and the Cimbri and Teutones tribes.


When William the Silent, count of Nassau, with estates in the Netherlands, inherited the title Prince of Orange in 1544, the Principality was incorporated into the holdings of what became the House of Orange-Nassau. This pitched it into the Protestant side in the Wars of Religion, during which the town was badly damaged. In 1568 the Eighty Years' War began with William as stadtholder leading the bid for independence from Spain. William the Silent was assassinated in Delft in 1584. It was his son, Maurice of Nassau (Prince of Orange after his elder brother died in 1618), with the help of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who solidified the independence of the Dutch republic. The United Provinces survived to become the Netherlands, which is still ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau. William, Prince of Orange, ruled England as William III of England. Orange gave its name to other Dutch-influenced parts of the world, such as the Orange Free State in South Africa.

The city remained part of scattered Nassau holdings until it was captured by the forces of Louis XIV in 1672 during the Franco-Dutch War, again captured in August 1682 and was finally ceded to France in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the wars of Louis XIV.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 at 10:34:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for indulging my sloth.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 at 01:47:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This kind of pollution definitely existed in our cities earlier in the 20th century.  Pittsburgh was notorious for having a black sky in the 1920's.  BLACK, from all the coal.

Cleveland has a river running through it that actually caught fire, TWICE, in the 1960's and 70's.  

Los Angeles of course was a toxic soup of smog through the 1980's.  It is much better than it was.

China seems to understand this and greening of their economy is underway and is part of the growth plan.  

by paving on Tue Aug 3rd, 2010 at 01:17:20 PM EST
For some perspective, today's AQI in Beijing is 36 - Good:

Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses no little or no risk

Some pictures from my apartment:

The dirty smudges in the upper parts of the image are not pollution, but stains on my camera lens.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Thu Aug 5th, 2010 at 03:26:57 AM EST
View around 6:50 PM (2010.8.6) from 22nd floor of building looking over Beijing's CBD (Central Business District):

Today's Air Quality Index as of 9:00 AM is 65: Moderate ~

Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.
by marco on Thu Aug 5th, 2010 at 09:07:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Again, the smudges in the top of the photo are not smoke or pollution, from my (very old) camera lens.

The gray haze low on the horizon, on the other hand, is smog.

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Thu Aug 5th, 2010 at 09:11:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Photobucket has a hard time dealing with links.  Here is that image again:

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Thu Aug 5th, 2010 at 10:47:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Apparently Photobucket has a hard time dealing with links when you move images from one album to another.

Here are those images again:

Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes.

by marco on Thu Aug 5th, 2010 at 10:46:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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