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The China Diaries

Discovering the new China along the trail of the Long March

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Smog sits over the river in tourist town Fenghuang, Jan. 14, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Smog sits over the river in tourist town Fenghuang, Jan. 14, 2013.

(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

In China, air quality is a matter of opinion Add to ...

I didn’t mean for the tweet to sound smug, but I suppose it could have been taken that way. “While the rest of China was coughing,” I typed Sunday, referring to the hazardous smog that has fallen over most of China, with my friends and family in Beijing breathing the worst of it, “John Lehmann and I were in lovely Fenghuang, Hunan province.”

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I added a photograph of a boatman offloading tourists along the river that cuts through this picturesque mountain town (where we had come to visit a village full of bachelors left behind when the local women took jobs in faraway factories). The picture was framed by clear blue skies.

Today, the smog caught up with us, even though we’re 1,700 kilometres southwest of Beijing, and up in the mountains. The first signal was the familiar burning sensation in my lungs that had me waking up grabbing for my asthma inhaler.

I threw open the curtains for the grim visual confirmation. It was nothing like the photos people were posting of Beijing (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Mordor from The Lord of the Rings these days), but the grey pall had indeed settled over our mountain retreat. China’s “airpocalypse” – as the unfolding pollution disaster has been dubbed online – had caught up to us even here.

It got worse as soon as we hit the highway heading back south to the railway station in Huaihua, a grim industrial centre that has been carpeted in smog each of the three times I’ve visited it in recent years. Visibility seemed to decrease every few hundred metres as we gave up the advantage of Fenghuang’s altitude.

The official Chinese government measure says the air pollution index in Changsha, the capital of Hunan, was a relatively benign 127 Sunday on a scale of 500, even as the official Xinhua newswire ran photographs of a city draped in “dense fog.” The truth is likely significantly worse. (Though the government has made an effort to give citizens more information about the air they’re breathing, the gap between the official air quality readings in Beijing, and those offered by the U.S. embassy, remains wide. On the weekend, the government acknowledged the air in the capital had reached a worst-ever 498 on its scale. The U.S. embassy measurementtre went through the roof, reaching an all-time high of 755 on Saturday, giving a “beyond index” readings of 500-plus for 17 consecutive hours at one point.)

The smog Monday morning stretched from the northeastern provinces of Liaoning and Heilongjiang to southern Sichuan and Yunnan, with flights cancelled from at airports in 10 different provinces on Sunday. The U.S. consulate in Chengdu, 850 kilometres west of Fenghuang, gave AQI readings of over 300, or “hazardous” for most of Monday morning.

On Hunan television, newscasters paused to play a song with the lyrics: “I don’t want to die in the fog.”

The tune was poignant, although the use of the word wu or “fog” continues to infuriate me. The state media has, to my eyes, made the airpocalypse worse by continuing to refer to the smog as a fog, even though anyone who inhales the grey stuff knows that fog doesn’t smell and taste like coal.

The worst offender has been the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, which has stubbornly called Beijing’s air quality “moderate” even on days when the U.S. embassy’s Twitter feed was warning its own citizens that the air was “hazardous” or worse. Many Chinese remain astounded, and argumentative, when I tell them that the stuff they and their children are breathing is dangerous to their health.

So what’s happening in China? Why has the air quality suddenly gone from bad to so much worse in the early days of 2013?

Part of it is climate-related. It has been an unusually cold winter in the Middle Kingdom this year; meaning coal-fired heating plants are working overtime. There has also been precious little wind in any of the smog-hit cities we’ve visited this week. “Pollutants, parts of which came from vehicle waste and coal burning in the chilly winter, gradually accumulated in recent windless days,” was how the official China Daily newspaper explained it Monday.

But this is nonetheless a very unnatural disaster. For decades, China’s government has largely ignored environmental concerns as it pushed the pedal on economic development. The government sought annual growth of 8 per cent, and often achieved significantly higher rates.

The question many in China are asking today is whether 8 per cent GDP growth every year is a “moderate” goal, or a “hazardous” one.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

The China Diaries

Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, and staff photojournalist John Lehmann are exploring China at a defining moment in its modern history. Travelling mainly by rail, they will roughly retrace the path of Mao Zedong’s Long March to look at the challenges facing Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping.

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