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.
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit