In the second of her blogs on China my colleague Eleanor shares her experience of the country’s infamous pollution. Read on to see if it is as bad as they say! Best regards, Mark.
In recent times, China’s pollution levels have become the stuff of legend. Shortly before my departure for the Far East, the British press ran an article about smog levels having reached such extraordinary heights in Beijing that the authorities took to televising the sunset on giant screens in Tiananmen Square. It turns out the screening was for a tourism advertisement with the sun being just a small part of the ad but the fact that many found it believable is testament to how notorious air quality in China is.
While my job collecting price data helps to inform cost of living allowances for expatriate pay packages, another team at ECA assesses locations to help companies decide whether to provide an additional allowance to compensate expats for adjusting to life in a new place. Air quality is one of a number of factors taken into account alongside culture, personal security, facilities, climate etc. I know that out of some 400+ locations analysed Beijing has had the worst possible score for this for a number of years. Even so, nothing had quite prepared me for the sense of breathing thick smog day in, day out for a few weeks: it isn’t just Beijing that is affected by pollution (though the northeast is undoubtedly the hardest-hit region), but all of China’s megacities.
I first noticed it in Guangzhou, in which I arrived on a night train from Xiamen – a small, seaside city which had recently ranked 6th in a survey of China’s cleanest air. Stepping out of the station at 7am, I instantly noticed the difference. Though I wasn’t far from downtown, the skyscrapers were just hazy outlines and my room on the 35th floor of a hotel felt at times like it was up in the clouds. Unlike an autumn morning mist, however, the haze never dispersed; for the next ten days, as I travelled on through Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan, I didn’t see a shred of blue sky.
The great speed of China’s development, which I commented on in my last blog, has resulted in thousands of construction projects and factories which pump pollution into the skies, particularly in the industry-heavy north of the country but also in many other cities. I’ve already mentioned Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan but Guangzhou and Shenyang were also suffering noticeably when I visited. A growing middle class has also increased car ownership by 200% in Beijing alone and though electric cars are now being sold with attached incentives, the take-up hasn’t been great so far. In March, China declared a ‘war on pollution’ and Beijing even has a team of ‘anti-smog police’ who fine badly polluting factories, but on average the dangerous particles in the capital’s air are four times greater than the WHO’s recommended safe level.
It is no wonder that such poor air quality is having a damaging effect on businesses based in China, some of which report increased staff turnover or difficulty hiring, particularly as some families are now thinking twice about relocating to or staying on assignment in China. After all, those location allowances often provided by companies to expats in recognition of the need to adapt to new conditions can only go so far when it comes to protecting someone’s health – even if some organisations may be using them to try to lure talent to the more polluted parts of China. Practical solutions such as the provision of masks and air purifiers were reported in a survey we ran last year of companies with expats in Beijing, while the International School of Beijing has resorted to protecting its grounds beneath two huge domes, effectively creating its own clean atmosphere (schools often have to close since it is deemed too dangerous for children, as well as the elderly, to be outside when the pollution reaches a certain level). Of course, such an extreme solution isn’t open to everyone.
Personally, I struck lucky in Beijing and Tianjin – clear blue skies finally greeted me and it was almost painfully bright. Rumour has it that the unusual weather was down to the National People’s Congress which was happening at that time. In order to make the air more palatable for the visiting parliamentarians, the factories in the North were turned off for a couple of weeks. Equally, it might have been to do with the trees coming into blossom. In any case I was grateful for a break from the thick air and obscured visibility which had become the norm over the last few weeks.
The good news is that the situation has become so bad that the Chinese government has vowed to actively improve things. Promises of reducing coal emissions, restricting the number of cars on the road and planting more trees, amongst other solutions, have all been put forward – it remains to be seen with what speed or effect. In the meantime, the amazing inventiveness of China has brought a couple of novel counter-measures into play. Chemical-releasing drones are being used to break up the particles in the air above smog-bound areas, and the northern city of Lanzhou has installed giant water cannons which act like rain, dispersing dust and polluting particles. Whilst they do aim upwards, anyone who goes shopping in Lanzhou will have to remember their umbrella or get a soaking!
Experiencing Beijing in springtime sunshine made me even more appreciative of the city, and of the ability to breathe fresh air – something I would normally take for granted. When it is possible (and pleasant) to be outside, China’s cities spring to life: groups of t’ai chi practitioners gather in parks in the early morning, traditional lakeside teahouses are filled to overflowing, squares are occupied by outdoor aerobics and line-dancing classes, and on nearly every street corner I found a huddle of elderly men playing an absorbed game of mah-jong. Urban development and pollution might be gradually driving people into the shelter of shopping malls, but a lot of social life continues to take place outdoors: this was one of my favourite aspects of life in China and one I hope doesn’t get further curtailed by the spread of smog.
Eleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.