Eve of the Election

Jonn Elledge attends an Obama rally in North Carolina filled with passionate and unlikely Democrats.

It takes a certain strength of character to vote against just about everyone of your skin colour because of something you see as a moral issue. So to go to an Obama rally with your mouth covered with red duck tape bearing a slogan accusing the senator of killing babies must take a quite colossal nerve.

I almost admired the young black man waiting inside the rally enclosure, staring fixedly at the crowd as it filed in. But still, the guy was wasting his time. We'd already been confronted in the hour long queue by four anti-abortion campaigners, standing silently holding posters of aborted foetuses, while the ring-leader harangued us through a megaphone. But all they got in response was a rousing chorus of, 'Yes we can'.

'Oh yes we can murder babies, you mean?' he yelled, but someone shouted back, 'You need a bigger speaker man, we can't hear you.'

This wasn't really his audience. The night before the election, in the brand new swing state of North Carolina, this was a crowd of true believers who just wanted to catch one last glimpse of their leader before the campaign ended.

They stood for an hour in the driving rain, listening to a succession of lesser speakers explaining the need to get the vote out or running through the roll call of local Democratic candidates.

These guys would have waited through anything for that moment when Obama finally appeared on stage. The girl next to me had driven three hours from Georgia, on her own, just to see him in the flesh. When the rain began, the hundreds in the queue surged forward, breaking through the first line of security barriers. Once close enough to see, they stood waiting patiently, just like everybody else.

In the crowd I spotted a woman with a buggy bearing a sign reading, 'Obama rocks me - born Democrat 2008.' There was a boy in a t-shirt reading, 'Obama is not a muslim, but I am - and I approve this message.' There was a girl telling her friends that her mother in Alaska had been handing out bumper stickers reading, 'Wasila moms for Obama-Biden.'

There were hundreds of young black men and women, who the numbers say would not normally be voting at all. Yet when one speaker asked the crowd who had cast their ballot, almost every hand went up.

The Senator spoke for about twenty minutes. He talked briefly of his grandmother, who had died the previous night, and for a moment seemed to be crying. But otherwise it was the same stump speech I'd already heard a dozen times on the TV and radio over the last fortnight.

The words weren't what mattered, though. What mattered to these people was that Obama had come far enough to be able to speak to them: Democrats who had lost hope that anyone who wasn't called Clinton could ever beat the Republican machine and African Americans who had never really believed they would see this in their lifetime. Without complaint, they put up with the queues and the cramp and the protesters and the rain, just to see him speak.

Before the event, my photographer had told me that he was so thoroughly sick of the whole thing that, were he an American, he wouldn't vote for either of them. As we drove away from the rally, he admitted that he'd changed his mind.

Once it was over, without so much as a second's pause, the crowd turned to leave. A few lined the nearby roads, on the offchance they would see his car pass by, but most were happy just to go. They'd got what they came for.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit