China

Bad Air

The real reason we're obsessed with China's pollution

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One of the demonstration sports of this year's Olympics has been grousing about Beijing's pollution, speculating on what air quality will be like tomorrow, asking athletes about their breathing, and otherwise pondering particulates in the air.

There's certainly no doubt that Beijing's air is gross. Yesterday was a pretty good day, but according to the World Bank, the city's air quality is much worse than Athens or Barcelona on average, with about twice as much particulate matter in the air as both those former hosts of the Games. Pulmonologist Dr. Janis Schaeffer says Beijing's air quality is 30 percent worse than famously smoggy Los Angeles.

Even as they make grave faces about the problems air pollution has caused, commentators marvel at the efficiency and thoroughness of the preparation for this year's Games, unlike the nail-biting delays and general bumbling in Athens four years ago. How beautiful the Bird's Nest stadium is! What a tremendous effort for the opening ceremonies!

In the big cities, their skyscrapers and malls look just like ours—maybe a little better. In the industrial areas, things look like our country once did, when we were poor and burned coal to get the energy to build things and keep ourselves warm.

The millions who walk among skyscrapers, choking on the foul air but otherwise prospering, are part of the same system that includes Badui, a rural town in western China. "Badui is known locally as the 'village of dunces,'" Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent column. "That's because of the large number of mentally retarded people here—as well as the profusion of birth defects, skin rashes and physical deformities."

The defects are probably caused by drinking water contaminated by a nearby fertilizer factory. "Even if you're afraid, you have to drink," Zhou Genger, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is mentally retarded and has a hunchback, told Kristof. (His description of the village brings to mind Ursula K. LeGuin's haunting—and much anthologized—short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which paints a picture of a hypothetical place where the happiness of an entire people rests on the wretchedness of a single blameless child, confined in a cellar broom closet.)

The fact is, the economic development that dirties China's air and occasionally pulls entire villages down into horrifying idiocy and squalor also lifts tens of millions of people a year out of poverty and into the middle class. A new study forecasts 30 to 40 million Chinese joining the ranks of those with incomes of between $6,000 and $30,000 every year for the next two decades.

In this, China looks like America once did. Growing fast, getting things done the quick and dirty way. While we may not be entirely comfortable gazing at this modern iteration of our industrial era selves, we should understand the tradeoffs, even if we're relieved not to have to make them anymore.

But every time things in China seemed reassuringly normal, or just pleasingly exotic, something comes across the wires that is so bafflingly far from our experience of the world that we can't quite comprehend it.

In China, the decisions that keep progress rolling are sometimes the same decisions that throw people off their land with little or no compensation. Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, applied for permits to protest being evicted from the homes in 2001 during the Olympics. Instead of permits, the septuagenarian women won a year of "reeducation-through-labor" in one of China's infamous camps.

Or consider the stories behind the elegant and impressive opening ceremonies. After the broadcast was over, word trickled out about small dishonesties: perhaps the fireworks were tweaked for TV viewers, perhaps the angelic little girl singing "Ode to the Motherland" was really lip-synching to a slightly less attractive girl's voice. But these are small things, and easily forgiven in the name of showmanship.

Then there's this: Filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who directed the ceremony, recently told the Guangzhou weekly newspaper Southern Weekend that only communist North Korea could have done a better job.

"North Korea is No. 1 in the world when it comes to uniformity," he said. "They are uniform beyond belief! These kind of traditional synchronized movements result in a sense of beauty. We Chinese are able to achieve this as well. Through hard training and strict discipline."

Pyongyang holds mass games every year that include such pageantry as 100,000 people moving in lockstep.

From Zhang's perspective, envy of the North Koreans is only natural. After all, he had to settle for a barely adequate three months of 16-hour workdays from his troupe of 2,200 of some of China's best martial artists. He had a mere 900 performers crouching under 40-pound boxes for such long stretches of time that they had to wear adult diapers. He could only keep his cast of thousands on their feet for a mere 51 hours in the summer heat and a downpour during a two-day rehearsal.

All of which suggests another explanation for why we keep harping on China's dirty air. Human beings have long condemned other tribes as unclean (think Christians vs. Jews vs. Muslims, for a relatively recent example)—groups whose standards and rituals are different than ours make us profoundly uncomfortable and the language of contamination is handy for articulating that sense.

We're taught that it's unacceptable to make judgments about the superiority of one culture over another, so we fill that void with endless chatter about the filthy Beijing air. This is easier and more pleasant than grappling with what it means to be standing in a city that looks like New York but where the people have an utterly different conception of human rights.

At the same time, we're grateful for this one point of superiority. By nattering on about the filthy air, we're quietly reassuring ourselves that there are areas where we're still number one. Our model, which is blessedly free from the ingredient of North Korea-envy, is still better at some things. For now.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.

NEXT: China's Free Speech Sting

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  1. I don’t know where I was reading it but I believe you can actually BUY a cloud to rain on your event in China to clear up the air. Silver iodide is used or some such cloud seeding material.

  2. Was Los Angeles circa 1975 really that much worse than Beijing today?

  3. Great story and you managed to put in a reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” too.

  4. “Was Los Angeles circa 1975 really that much worse than Beijing today?”

    No.

  5. You had me until “For now.” Please. The Chinese will catch up with us about 50 years after the Japanese do. Aren’t libertarians supposed to believe in, you know, free minds and free markets? As opposed to, you know, mandatory adult diapers?

  6. As opposed to, you know, mandatory adult diapers?

    It DEPENDS.

    I now await the full beating I deserve for that joke.

  7. …groups whose standards and rituals are different than ours make us profoundly uncomfortable and the language of contamination is handy for articulating that sense.

    Great article and an interesting point. Ideas/language surrounding the “unclean” play out in all kinds of ways.

    I (mistakenly) took an Environmental Studies prof with a complete Gaia-feminazi, and while most of what she said lead back to the fact that we should all be living in yurts, she made an interesting connection re. the difficulties in dealing with waste.

    She thought that our reluctance had something to do with our ideas about contamination, thus the desire to detach as soon as possible from all waste (& thus, according to her, eco-friendly waste mgmt).

  8. the same economic development that dirties China’s air also lifts tens of millions of people a year out of poverty and into the middle class.

    Don’t forget that it also slows global warming by pairing particulate pollution with the co2. The global dimming that this particulate pollution puts on the system has an important moderating effect on the global warming that the co2 causes.

    Use of technologies that remove the particulate matter without also sequestering the co2 in more developed countries (read US) make an equivalent amount of energy contribute more to global warming than the more polluting methods used by the Chinese.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sun/

    The worst case scenario as far as global warming goes is for China and India to adopt European/US style air quality controls that don’t address the co2 issue.

  9. Brilliant Epi! Brilliant!

    *does the slow clap from all those teen movies*

    *no not teen porn Epi*

  10. It DEPENDS.

    Admit your secret fascination with the wild-eyed astronaut lady.

    Hey, that was a lady with a plan. Diapers, mace, Houston to Orlando in nine hours….BLAMMO!

  11. Don’t forget that it also slows global warming by pairing particulate pollution with the co2. The global dimming that this particulate pollution puts on the system has an important moderating effect on the global warming that the co2 causes.

    But how much of this “gain” is offset by the darkening and reduction of the reflectivity of the ice caps and other glaciers from that same particulate matter?

  12. Admit your secret fascination with the wild-eyed astronaut lady.

    Anybody that dedicated is interesting.

    She thought that our reluctance had something to do with our ideas about contamination, thus the desire to detach as soon as possible from all waste

    But this is a logical result of the fact that feces is filled with harmful bacteria. Shit in the lake, and forget drinking from it. Urine is sterile and human societies have long used it for tanning hides and other things. So we have no problem with waste per se; we have a problem with bacterially contaminated waste.

    I think your teacher was full of shit. (that’s two, I’m on a roll!)

  13. Citizen Nothing | August 22, 2008, 2:38pm | #

    Moderate Lefty fight!

    Yes, I imagine we’ll be sitting down with a nice merlot and discussing this in a painfully fair-minded manner that doesn’t lead to a solid conclusion any minute now.

  14. It might be instructive to compare the (reported) horrors of Ironbridge Gorge in England at the start of the Industrial Revolution and its current state.
    Ecological horrors tend to be recoverable.
    Or tended to be, depending on whether or not you believe the past predicts the future, and that scalar effects never display catastrophe curves…

    no hugs for thugs,
    Shirley Knott

  15. But how much of this “gain” is offset by the darkening and reduction of the reflectivity of the ice caps and other glaciers from that same particulate matter?

    Seeing as how the ice caps are both growing; all of it.

    The best part of all this is not that the world is getting cooler (it is) but that the 10’s of millions of Chinese being pulled out of poverty every year are in no way ever going to listen to joe or new mex.

  16. Finally, Katherine Mangu-Ward has something I can agree with! I look forward to her discussing how a lot of people complain about ForcedLabor and ReeducationCamps, but in fact they’re the key to both China’s prosperity and our ConsumerEconomy.

  17. Beijing’s air quality is 30% worse than LA’s? Oh, it must be because an expert says so. IMO, good writing, good journalism and good argumentation demand a wee bit more than prefacing an assertion of fact with vague qualifiers such as “according to experts”.

  18. We’re taught that it’s unacceptable to make judgments about the superiority of one culture over another, so we fill that void with endless chatter about the filthy Beijing air.

    This completely ignores the negative effect pollution has on GDP. It also ignores protests from Chinese citizens regarding the pollution. Some of Western grousing about China is partly due to the fact that we’ve exported our dirty industries there, but it’s not solely due to cultural dismissiveness. Heck, there were stories about Athens’ pollution, which as you said is half as bad as Beijing’s.

    Quick question, if pollution in Beijing isn’t “that bad”, then why did China shut down local industry for weeks in advance of the Olypics to clear the air?

  19. LoneWacko!!!!!!!

    *shakes fist in air*

  20. Coming soon from Katherine Mangu-Ward:
    “Lead, the wonder ingredient!”
    “The forgotten benefits of workhouses”
    “Would rule by Sauron have been really so bad?”

  21. So we have no problem with waste per se; we have a problem with bacterially contaminated waste.

    I think your teacher was full of shit. (that’s two, I’m on a roll!)

    Debunked her theory AND threw in a pun for free? Is there nothing you can’t do? 😉

    Seriously though, that would have been a nice addition to the class. I was exerting maximum effort just to keep from hurling obscenities at her.

  22. “…sitting down with a nice merlot.”
    Merlot! Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!

    fuckin’ lefties.

  23. Dagny,

    He can’t make you Photoshops.

  24. That’s not leftism, that’s Hopperism.

  25. Whatever, joshua. The magical Jesus machine means there isn’t really a greenhouse effect.

  26. it also slows global warming by pairing particulate pollution with the co2.

    Trabants for everybody!

    Sorry, NM, I couldn’t help it.

  27. I was exerting maximum effort just to keep from hurling obscenities at her.

    That must have left you pooped at the end of the day.

    (someone please stop me)

  28. Jesus died for my carbon footprint.

  29. SF,

    Those were pretty great, and are now displayed in my cubicle where they will serve to perplex my coworkers.

  30. China looks like America once did – for good reason: it is following our template. The world we’re seeing coming forth is based on the USian model. Part of our fascinated terror stems from the somewhat buried foreknowledge that we’re looking at ourselves – our own worst practices, writ large, in alien alphabets.

  31. “…sitting down with a nice merlot.”
    Merlot! Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!

    Lefties drink Merlot and Righties drink PBR? No wonder it isn’t that hard to say “A pox on both your houses.”

    Cosmos drink cabernet sauvignon and martinis. Paleos don’t drink ’cause Jesus wouldn’t like it. Those are at least tenable positions. Merlot and PBR are not fit for human consumption.

  32. The world we’re seeing coming forth is based on the USian model.

    It’s “American”. A-mer-i-can. Hey hey, ho ho, “USian” is stupid as all fuck.

  33. It’s not libertarian to force a village into mental retardation from the pollution from a city with no compensation to the victims and no possibility of leaving. And there’s a difference between practices seeming foreign and practices seeming abhorrent; I would find the practice of sending mothers to forced reeducation for trying to protest abhorrent anywhere. And also, saying that China has a different concept of human rights than we do here pretends that the Chinese government and their concept of human rights is identical to that of the Chinese people, when the women trying to protest the Olympics proves otherwise.

  34. Seeing as how the ice caps are both growing; all of it.

    I call horse. As in, a big stinking pile.

    You gonna drop a bomb like that, you should back it up. Last I read, and it wasn’t that long ago, icecaps were collapsing at a very slow rate, but were outpacing growth from new ice.

    The Northwest passage is becoming navigable and you’re trying to lay on that the Arctic gap is growing?

  35. My multilettered friend, this fight is probably not worth the effort.

  36. Hey now! Not all merlots are dull French crap.

    I’ve had South American Merlots spicy enough to make your eyes water.

    And Australian cabernets are just crap.

    (Out of solidarity with the little people of the world, I only drink wine from the “global south.” Heh. Remember that term from the 90s?)

  37. Bourbon.
    Bour-bon.
    Bouuuuuurbon.
    Bour.
    Bon.
    Don’t make me say it again.

  38. Out of solidarity with the little people of the world, I only drink wine from the “global south.”

    Chileans, joe. Try the Chileans. They are good.

  39. Fuck that.

    We should have Cisco.

    Its a Red….sort of.

  40. Love the Chilean wines, Ep. Argentina, too. And New Zealand wines will put hair on your chest.

  41. “Hey hey, ho ho, “USian” is stupid as all fuck.”

    A.O.
    Would it piss you off to learn that in Esperanto, the proper term for the country is Usono, and we citizens are Usonanoj?

    (Cxu vi kolerigxos lerni ke Esperante ni civitantoj nomigxas usonanoj?)

    Yes, my brain is filled with useless crap.

  42. Australian whites (and no, I’m not talking about that Yellowtail bullshit), are generally decent, as well as some German dessert wines.

    Rieslings are nice and sharp.

  43. CN —

    (Cxu vi kolerigxos lerni ke Esperante ni civitantoj nomigxas usonanoj?)

    That there looks like someone tried and failed to transliterate Klingon.

  44. Citizen Nothing, I hope you have seen the Shat-tastic Incubus…filmed entirely in Esperanto.

  45. El,
    Both my Esperanto and my Klingon are a little rusty.

    Epi,
    Shat-tastic! You bet. I’ve got the DVD. Shat was certainly a good sport. And the movie actually isn’t as bad as I feared (until the very end).

  46. Re: LA v. Beijing Pollution

    This article from the LA Times refers to the “PM-10” chart they have been running in the print edition, each day. Here’s the one for the day of the online article, August 12. You can tell when it rained … but before that, that particular particulate level in Beijing was WAAAAY more than 30% higher than LA’s levels, which remain fairly consistent. This morning’s paper showed that the rain hasn’t stopped the smog … it’s on the rise, and easily double LA’s levels, now.

    I’m just saying …

  47. I gotta really nice super-tuscan (100% merlot) down in the cellar. You need to learn to bitch about wine makers, not wine grapes.

  48. James-

    I’m just wondering how early 70s LA compares to Beijing, before we had better cars and stricter regulations.

  49. Would it piss you off to learn that in Esperanto, the proper term for the country is Usono, and we citizens are Usonanoj?

    Well, in my fake language that no one uses, America is called Awesome and we citizens are Awesomeolians.

  50. And Australian cabernets are just crap.

    Such bigotry, and from a self-professed liberal no less.

    I have a fine collection of Aussi Cabs downstairs. Of course, I’m not a cheap-ass, SOB like you 😉

  51. joe, try the jester cab, under 20 bucks.

  52. Would it piss you off to learn that in Esperanto, the proper term for the country is Usono, and we citizens are Usonanoj?

    you know Columbus is just white-bread enough that I really feel that speaking Esperanto here is somehow…appropriate.

  53. Bourbon.

    Every tool fits a job; different job, differet tool.

  54. Oh, Wine Commonsewer, where are you?

  55. A country has to be developed before it starts caring about the environment.

    But development hurts the environment in the short term. Catch-22.

  56. So, the reason we care about pollution is because of pseudo-psychological dreck, and not because pollution neither stays in one place nor affects only the citizens of the country who make it. Funny you should mention Las Angeles; when North China has it’s semi-yearly sandstorms rolling in off Mongolia, as much as a third of the pollution in the air in LA is from Chinese factories. And this ignores completely the people who have to live downriver from Chinese plants, and who get awful doses of horrifying chemicals every so often when the factories fail. None of this matters though, huh Katherine?

  57. When I got married, my new brother-in-lay gave me a 1995 port and said not to open it until 2008. We popped it when he came up last month.

    Good lord, was it tasty.

  58. Wow, gayest typo ever. Really makes the rest of the comment super-special.

  59. Seriously, joe. You need to screen-shot that and keep it for posterity.

  60. it’s on the rise, and easily double LA’s levels, now.

    And LA has the excuse of being in a really lousy place in terms of geography, with the LA Basin creating a giant wind pot that holds pollution in place. Beijing has no such excuse, the land being fairly flat and the winds being reliably uniform.

  61. Whatever, joshua. The magical Jesus machine means there isn’t really a greenhouse effect.

    I don’t know what the primary drivers of global temperature are. I do know the theory of the micro gas CO2 being one has fallen into disgrace.

    Also I am pretty sure any machine made by a guy who may or may not have existed 2000 years ago has nothing to do with it.

    Sorry that global warming has not panned out as an excuse for socializing energy use. You might try ph levels of the ocean. Good luck with that.

  62. Actually Beijing has the excuse of shitty geography as well form what I heard.

    Thats why Shanghai is like present-day LA, because it has GOOD geography.

  63. Manhattan lucks out with pollution in the geography department, huh?

  64. “Good lord, it was tasty!”

    LMAO! I can’t catch my breath! Somebody call 911!

  65. Manhattan lucks out with pollution in the geography department, huh?

    I dunno. If we have smog, at least it isn’t *visible*.

  66. Manhattan pollution just gets blown out to sea. Problem solved.

  67. but don’t forget for a second who holds the power. The middle class can go away tomorrow if they want it to.

    Yeah cuz as we all know the middle class goes quietly into that night.

    Your idea that such a thing is possible is unprecedented in world history.

  68. I think we focus on China’s pollution in order to feel a bit better about them kicking our butt in many marketplaces – and often those feelings are quite justified. China’s low costs are usually a reflection of their poor labor and environmental standards.

  69. “Merlot and PBR are not fit for human consumption”

    Sterling makes a fine merlot.

  70. I think we focus on China’s pollution in order to feel a bit better about them kicking our butt in many marketplaces

    Except they aren’t, really; they’re suffering from the same loss of jobs to outsourcing to cheaper areas and increased productivity that we are, they’re just better at hiding it. In truth, China is like a duck; placid on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath to avoid falling behind and becoming a victim of their own population’s increasing expectations.

  71. Manhattan is right near the ocean *and* has strong Canadian winds blowing the smog right out to sea.

    If you put took NYC and put it in LA’s geography, it would be like Beijing.

  72. joshua —

    Many things in history are “unprecedented” when they happen. It’s people like you who are sitting around with dumb-assed shocked looks on your faces when it does that make such times really entertaining.

  73. A country has to be developed before it starts caring about the environment.

    But development hurts the environment in the short term. Catch-22.

    Not really…develop first, worry later. It’s way more important to raise the standard of living and the life expectancy than it is to worry about Mama Gaia’s feewings.

  74. Was Los Angeles circa 1975 really that much worse than Beijing today?

    It depends on where in the hierarchy of the porn industry you were.

  75. Many things in history are “unprecedented” when they happen. It’s people like you who are sitting around with dumb-assed shocked looks on your faces when it does that make such times really entertaining.

    Yeah cuz china is going to suddenly evaporate its middle class and the middle class is just going to let it happen.

    When did you become a drooling moron?

  76. I don’t think somebody who has not yet caught up to late 1800s level of science knowledge should insult anyone’s intelligence.

    I do know the theory of the micro gas CO2 being one has fallen into disgrace. Yo, chief, the heat-trapping properties of C02 were demonstrated when people still drove around in horse-drawn buggies.

  77. Do you ‘know’ that, joshua, like you ‘know’ that northern blacks weren’t part of the New Deal coalition?

  78. Shem has an excellent point.

    joe. joe. joe. taking candy from the retards. I’m talking full retard hier.

    (just saw Tropic Thunder. had a blast!)

  79. I visited Beijing and Xi’an in 2001, and while the air in Beijing seemed unremarkable, I had never experienced anything like the pollution in Xi’an. Gray, sooty skies that the guide tried to pass off as “fog”. Half the population wearing surgical masks.

    That sounds significantly worse than any air pollution we ever had in this country. Was even Pittsburg ever so bad that people had to wear masks? ‘though I do recall stories of the snow turning into black slush.

  80. That’s just cuz the snow killed itself upon realizing that it had fallen in pissburgh.

  81. joe | August 23, 2008, 9:42am | #

    I don’t think somebody who has not yet caught up to late 1800s level of science knowledge should insult anyone’s intelligence. I do know the theory of the micro gas CO2 being one has fallen into disgrace. Yo, chief, the heat-trapping properties of C02 were demonstrated when people still drove around in horse-drawn buggies.

    Joe, it’s pretty much pointless to argue with most of the global warming “skeptics” around here. Few of them are even smart enough or informed enough to grasp when their arguments have been refuted, nor honest enough to admit it when the little light-bulb in their head does click on and they do understand.

    They will continue to cite the handful of crackpots who have semi-relevant credentials and a big blowhorn handed to them by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and pretend that these couple dozen people make a “side” to a debate in which the other “side” is essentially every major scientific organization on earth and almost all of their members.

    You are right. The primary mechanism of global warming, as well as its major feedback loop (increasing temperatures increase the vapor pressure of water, further trapping heat) clear back in the 1800’s. That people around here still deny 19th-century physics and chemistry is quite telling about their objectivity.

  82. A fraction of environmentalists have used environmentaism as a front for xenophobia for over a century. The biggest push to preserve American wilderness came when immigration to the US swelled.

  83. I’m shocked to see this article in a libertarian magazine, especially one of Reason’s caliber. In citing the horrifying story of the retarded children of Badui, Mangu-Ward swallows wholesale the leftist and authoritarian view that the well-being of the many requires the sacrifice of the few, and suggests that “the decisions that keep progress rolling” are somehow inextricably linked to the decisions that rob people’s land and send old women to reeducation camps. Again, while apparently distancing herself from the relativist view that we shouldn’t criticize other cultures, she seems to endorse the view that in denying fundamental liberty and property rights to their citizens, the Chinese government (which, in statist fashion, she confuses with “the people”) are just expressing a different conception of human rights. Articles like this call Reason’s commitment to liberty and individual rights into question – even if they make it easier for Reason to become part of the establishment.

  84. Mangu-Ward’s social engineering type world view is similar in many respects to that of Mao. So what if you poison a few hundred thousands of villagers so that a larger number has a higher income? It is still the same philosophy as the Great Leap Forward. Sacrifice the individual so that “the society” can move ahead. Are you sure that REASON is a libertarian publication?

  85. Elemenope says: “Last I read, and it wasn’t that long ago, icecaps were collapsing at a very slow rate, but were outpacing growth from new ice.”

    Ice levels at the north pole have been steadily declining (though this year is an exception to that trend). All available measurements indicate that the Antarctic icecap has been steadily growing, and Antarctica seems to have been cooling for a while. Most reporting on the subject is about a small Antarctic peninsula where temperatures have risen. Make of that what you will, but note that sea level rise seems to have (temporarily) stopped for the first time in millenia…

  86. “When I got married, my new brother-in-lay gave me a 1995 port”

    Joe, what typo? That was merely a f**king AWESOME example of a Freudian slip 😉

    AAMOF, as more and more people cohabitate rather than marry, I vote that we alter the language accordingly.

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