Living in Post-“Airpocalyptic” China

The “haze” (as locals call it) finally cleared a few days ago and I actually saw the stars for the first time since I’ve been in China—the same stars that were looking down on this view of northeastern China on October 21st. The blurry grey part shows the smog…from a satellite in space. You can get an idea how blurry it must have been on the ground.

Credit: NOAA/NASA

Credit: NOAA/NASA

I’m not the only one cranking up the heat in my apartment. It’s more like me times 1 billion people using heat. Of course there is a problem with this when 70 percent of China depends on coal for energy. At the same time that everybody is turning up the heat, farmers are burning massive amounts of agricultural waste all over the country. This combination produces the environmental disaster you probably saw in recent news coverage.

Thankfully, my city is on the outskirts of Shanghai and far from the extreme pollution levels of Beijing and Harbin. But that doesn’t mean we missed out. Jiangyin’s haze was the worst in the morning (like in the photos below). After sunset the sky at night turns an indescribably sick purplish-brown. Some of my students returned coughing and sick from their weekend in Shanghai. They all said the air was unbreathable.

A street near campus

A street near campus

Walking to the bus stop

The Chinese government’s response to the pollution crisis as having its own benefits, handed over the opportunity for international media (including TIME and Slate) to shove Chinese censor

According to CCTV, these are the benefits of smog (, TIME):

“1. It unifies the Chinese people.
2. It makes China more equal.
3. It raises citizen awareness of the cost of China’s economic development.
4. It makes people funnier.
5. It makes people more knowledgeable (of things like meteorology and the English word haze).”

What makes it even more horrifying is that China is not above capitalizing on tragedy. Fashionable masks are everywhere; I’ve even seen cute and fuzzy panda masks. South China Morning Post wrote an article on mask trends in Beijing.

“Some people refuse to wear cheap masks. Rena, 29, spends 200 yuan on her Totobobo mask, 100 times more than a popular activated carbon mask.”

I know that masks protect people from high levels of PM, or particulate matter, but the idea of a marketing strategy for fashion masks is disturbing. It may give the wrong idea to younger people that it can be “cool” to have to wear a mask. China is delusional if they think pollution will ever be in vogue.

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