David Wertime

Chinese Web Erupts With Widespread Calls for Change as Beijing Endures Airpocalypse 2.0

Beijing on January 19, with an Air Quality Index reading of 415. (©A/Flickr)

This article also appears on ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

Beijingers are choking on their air — again. Just seventeen days after Chinese cyberspace erupted with complaints about pollution so bad that it was “beyond index,” denizens of the Chinese capital awoke once again to a city blanketed with smog. Over the past 24 hours, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has released readings showing an air quality index — which measures fine particulate matter particularly hazardous to the lungs — peaking at 526. Readings above 300 are considered “hazardous,” and anything above 500 is literally off the charts, or “beyond index.”

United we choke

Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blogging platform, has once again became a forum for citizens of all stripes to air their grievances. Among Sina’s list of the ten “hottest” Weibo posts, four currently bemoan the state of Beijing’s air, with each author representing a different slice of Chinese society.

Among them was a heartfelt cry from actress Song Dandan (@宋丹丹). She wrote, “I was born and raised in Beijing and have lived here for over 50 years. The flood of emigration and every other type of temptation were not enough to get me to leave this lovable city. Today, this thought keeps circling in my mind: ‘Where will I go to spend my later years?’” Television host Zhang Quanling (@张泉灵), also in the top ten, went for humor. “I really don’t understand people who smoke outdoors. They really don’t know how to be thrifty! Right now in Beijing, you can smoke for free anywhere you go by taking two breaths of air,” she wrote.

Weibo user Song Dandan shared this recent image of Beijing. (Via Weibo)

Financial columnist Ding Chenling (@丁辰灵) rose to second place when he posted an infographic discussing the origin of China’s air pollution and comparing it to the United States. Ding commented, ”China and the U.S. are the same [geographic] size; China has 100 million cars, the U.S. has 285 million. Why is China’s air so bad? It’s because of relaxed standards for low quality fuel. China’s petrol has 500% of the sulfur content of U.S. fuel, and 1,500% the sulfur content of European fuel.”

Anger and frustration at the quality of Beijing’s air was not limited to bloggers of one political persuasion. Conservative commentator Hu Xijin (@胡锡进) complained,”I was just having lunch with the Pakistani ambassador to China in the Jingcheng building, on about the 50th floor. I pointed to the beautiful scene outside and said to the ambassador: Look at the strange picture that economic development paints — hazily enchanting.”

Hu later added, “Chinese people should not tolerate and endure too much environmental pollution just for the sake of enrichment…in an age of globalization, this will add to the opportunities for conflict between China and other countries. Even if we may be the ultimate victors…it may not be enough to cover what we’ve lost in the present.”

It’s not us, it’s you

A number of prominent Weibo users pointed a finger in the direction of China’s government. Real estate developer Pan Shiyi (@潘石屹) started an online poll that reads more like a petition to Chinese authorities. It simply reads, “Call for legislation: Clean Air Bill.” 98.8% of those responding have expressed support thus far.

Angel investor and widely-followed Weibo user Charles Xue (@薛蛮子)’s widely-read post was perhaps the most urgent. Xue wrote, “China’s air pollution has already worsened to an intolerable point. I hope the Chinese assembly will take this opportunity to call a meeting, and put out a clean air bill. For every old person, for every child, for the health of every citizen, we need to control environmental pollution!”

While some Web users are pining for new legislation, others are thinking about smaller measures. The third-most trending Weibo hashtag is a discussion of whether Beijing traffic cops should be allowed to wear masks to protect themselves from the pungent air. Fang Lifen (@王利芬), Founder and CEO of Umiwi Technology, had another entrepreneurial idea:

On a morning stained with poison air, here’s a suggestion: Aside from allowing the normal operation of public transportation, all other vehicles should be stopped, and the production of all [vehicles] with non-conforming emissions should also be stopped. Both the plebeians and the leading cadres (however important they may be) should be squeezed together on public transportation so public servants can get closer [to their constituents].

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
  • Archie

    @宋丹丹, lucky for you that you have a choice to live somewhere. What a self-indulged post.