If there’s one thing that unites the Chinese population it’s air pollution: it’s something that affects almost everyone. Although it may seem strange to outside observers, China’s mass public awareness of air pollution is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just a few years ago smog was often called fog or smoke by the Chinese media and official agencies, and blame for it was passed on to natural weather conditions or farmers burning their fields. The problem simply wasn’t acknowledged then by the government, the media, or even by most people.
I remember this.
I first visited China in 2005; a year later I was living in Hangzhou, going to university. The air quality was atrocious even then, and I would rate the day’s pollution each morning by counting how many high-rises I could see stretching out to the horizon. Three dozen on a good day, two or three on a poor one. This defacto DIY air pollution index was necessary then, as this was a half decade before any public data on smog was readily available.
I was a little out of step at that time for even taking notice of the air quality at all, as this simply wasn’t something many people were talking about. I may have been equally ignorant, attributing Hangzhou’s perma-haze to fog derived from the fact that the city was on a large body of water, if it wasn’t for one of my professors.
He was an American medical doctor who would venture into the streets decked out in a military grade gas mask. As he walked through the city looking as though he was prepared for chemical warfare he would, of course, attract attention. People walking would stop in their tracks, drivers would crane their necks from their cars, and crowds would stop to gawk at the man in the mask. There wasn’t an immediate connection then between protective respiratory gear and air pollution. But when pressed as to why he was wearing the mask the doctor would calmly remove it, pop out the filter, and hold it up for all to see. Invariably, it would be black. “This is from the air,” he’d say. The presentation was effective, and we could no longer fool ourselves that the opaque haze that surrounded us was the same as the fog over West Lake that many ancient poets marveled about.
When I moved up the Yangtze River to Taizhou in 2012 I experienced the same lack of public awareness about air pollution. Though this small city was right in the heart of the growing Shanghai – Nanjing mega-region, a major urbanization corridor chock full of factories and power plants, and the air that was so degraded that it was normal to not be able to see the buildings rising not a half kilometer away, nobody talked about pollution.
By that time China’s air pollution was just starting to be covered by the domestic media, though the public was lead to believe that it was localized to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. When I would talk about the smog in Taizhou the people there would just chuckle and correct me: “In Beijing the air is bad, in Taizhou it is not bad.” They had never seen a news report about air pollution in their city, they never heard anyone speak ill of the air quality there, so why would they think otherwise? If they were living in an environmental hazard zone then certainly someone at some point would have mentioned it.
That’s what they thought because that’s only what had been reported in the Chinese media. They never heard their families complaining about the air, they never had a teacher mention it, they never heard anybody talk about it, so they were able to ignore the absolute obvious. This cultural agreement, if it could be called that, was absolutely riveting to me — I just couldn’t understand it, it all seemed so readily apparent.
Then an event occurred later in 2012 that forever changed this. Due to weather patterns, cities across China, from Shanghai out past Wuhan, experienced a haze so heavy that entire metropolises were completely shut down.
“The windows are messed up!” my daughter exclaimed upon waking up yesterday morning.
It was true: the windows were like the paper doors of an old Japanese house — opaque at best. You couldn’t see out of them, and only a mellow glow of morning light shown through. But it wasn’t the windows that were messed up, it was the air outside, the air that we breath.
I was in the middle of it in Taizhou. I woke up one morning to find that I was sealed into my apartment as though engulfed in smoke. I couldn’t see the building across the street. People then read the news and social media and discovered that cities over a thousand miles away were engrossed in the same situation, and it became overtly apparent that it wasn’t fog. The local governments tried to say that the haze was caused from farmers burning crops; the farmers said they were doing nothing that they haven’t been doing for centuries. A stand off of rhetoric ensued between third party air quality analysts, the international media, and the Chinese authorities. Then something broke down somewhere and the national media were permitted to admit that it was pollution — perhaps at the risk of losing any semblance of credibility they still had.
This was the first ‘airpocalypse,’ as it was dubbed, and it provoked an immediate shift in public consciousness. Suddenly, nobody could ignore the smog or pretend that air pollution was something that only Beijing had. The entire society, from the government to the common people, were forced to recognize the problem that had been right in their face for decades — and take responsibility for it. Air pollution suddenly became a national conversation topic, checking the air quality index became a daily ritual akin to looking at the weather report, and PM2.5 masks became a standard piece of apparel.
A couple more years went by, more airpocalypses struck, and the Chinese public grew increasingly aware of smog and what it does to them. A growing animosity built up against the government and big polluting companies, and a simmer of discontent spread across the country.
Then, if any shards of complacency and lack of understanding remained about China’s air pollution they were were swept away by Chai Jing’s Under the Dome documentary, which was released at the beginning of March 2015. The film ultimately substituted the random scraps of knowledge that people had about the topic into a coherent body of information; outlining not only why and how their country has become so polluted but giving directives on what ordinary citizens can do about it. More pertinently, it got people talking. There were over 280 posts about it on Sina Weibo alone before discussion of the topic was purged online.
Though removed from the face of the Chinese internet, the impact had already resonated across the society.
Over a third of China’s 600 million internet users had watched the documentary. The film essentially gave direction to a colossal array of individuals who felt the same thing; it said what everyone was thinking; and assembled mass discontent over the issue into a movement.
You can now hear people talking about air pollution in the streets, in cafes, and in restaurants across the country — often plucking examples from Under the Dome verbatim.
This is a transitioning generation: there are still people who remember what China was like when the sky was blue, when the rivers were full of fish and water that was safe to drink, when there was no reason to worry about the air you breathed or the food you ate. This nostalgia of an idealized past is fueling discontent with the present.
“Why I blame the people in China?” exclaimed a school teacher in Inner Mongolia. “Because we didn’t say no to government because its failure to act in their supervising, we didn’t say no to those bad business men who polluted our air, we didn’t say no to ourselves or the people surround us who do many little things that badly hurt our environment.”
The Chinese public is now saying no. The blinders have been removed, the smog is seen for what it is, and being environmentally conscious has moved from a chic, middle class trend to something integral that spans all spheres of the society. But will it amount to anything?
“Is too early to say change, we can only say that there is a new direction,” a young musician from Shangdong said. “China, unlike other countries, ordinary people can not participate in politics.”
A government that’s not voted for needs to constantly be proving its legitimacy. It must be seen as providing for and protecting the people it rules, as giving them something they couldn’t get otherwise. Though when problems arise there is nowhere to divert the blame. There is no “other party” to vilify, no self-loathing for voting for the wrong candidate, no way to pass responsibility on to someone else.
There is an ever-growing push by the public in China for cleaner air right now, and as the government has acknowledged the scale of the problem they are looked upon to produce results along with the rhetoric. Unlike other issues, the government cannot hide air pollution; the public can not only see it but can monitor it as well with apps and websites that show an up to the minute air quality index, and an unrequited commitment to improving air quality at this point could backfire and make the Party look inept and weak — exactly how an authoritarian regime cannot look if they are to retain the legitimacy to continue ruling.
“If things get worse and our government still does nothing, I’m not sure what will happen,” a woman from Jiangsu province spoke. “It’s not like anything else. It’s survival.”