Fog, sandstorm and smog: these were three words I learned during my decades living in Beijing. Everywhere you went, you could hear that short, rapid dry cough, emerging from the depths of the chest cavity, the lungs and trachea, as if these body parts were resisting a profound quietness – a visceral rejection of human depravity.
The “Beijing cough” condemns the city’s transport system, power supply, industrial production and expansion. China now produces half the world’s steel, and the demand for raw materials has been a catalyst for the country’s crazy growth.
In the 1970s Beijing was like other cities in China. There were no private cars. Bicycles formed a matrix in the streets, advancing slowly forward. On rainy days, no vehicles or bicycles were to be seen – just a few pedestrians, and occasionally a bus or tram. The city was so quiet that only bike bells were audible. Today there are more than five million vehicles running on poor-quality fuel.
One visible result of the pollution is the lengthening queues to see doctors. Cancer, septicaemia and other once alien diseases are common. We now have “cancer villages” and “pulmonary disease villages”, where the rates of these illnesses are very high, as well as a generation of children dubbed “big head dolls”, a reference to babies whose heads are thought to have grown abnormally after being fed melamine-laced formula milk in 2008.
The environmental change is a sign of moral corruption, like an apple beginning to rot from its core. Our new vocabulary also includes clenbuterol, gutter oil (illegally recycled waste cooking oil), toxic milk, waste materials and carbon emissions. Our mountains are no longer green; our rivers run dry. Air and water pollution are facts that we live with.
This autumn China announced a strategic deployment of power outages as a way of curbing shortages and overproduction. These are irregular and intermittent in many provinces and cities, threatening both industrial production and people’s daily lives. Individuals have finally become trapped in a prison of their own making, environmental refugees within their own homes.
It was poverty that prompted China to embark on its 40-year journey towards today’s globalisation strategy (and the Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013) under the slogans “Adversity leads to prosperity” and “Reshaping nature and Earth, man can conquer nature” (the latter was widely used during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which began in 1994). This was a transformation from dialectical materialism to consumer materialism – but those who have “lost their chains”, to paraphrase the Communist Manifesto, still dream of acquiring the entire world.
I fled from the suffocating and life-threatening political environment of Beijing, but leaving was not just an aesthetic and political choice. It was also a longing for fresh air, clean water and green plants, and a desire for freedom and safety. I, too, have become an environmental refugee.
The environmental costs of authoritarianism, capitalism, nationalism and corporatocracy have put the world’s health at risk, challenged our confidence in sustainable human development and cast a shadow over our imagined future. The pandemic has shown us that humans cannot dominate the world, and that our excessive claims on it are to be repaid. We have moved from a religious economy to one based on empire, war and the pandemic, but wealth has overridden all disasters. Now we are discovering that the idea that “hardships may awaken a nation, and from crisis comes an opportunity”, as one Chinese saying goes, is a fantasy.
Ai Weiwei’s memoir “1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows” will be published by Bodley Head on 2 November