[For many residents, the red alert — used for the first time since an emergency plan for pollution was unveiled two years ago — underscored the devil’s handshake that China has made in recent years: the trading of a healthy living environment for breakneck economic growth. Now, as Communist Party leaders try to transform this dystopian scenario, many Chinese are realizing lasting change could take years, maybe decades.]
By Edward Wong
The government, which for the first time declared a “red alert” over air pollution late Monday, even broadcast what sounded like bombing raid alerts in the subways — warnings telling people to take precautions with their health. Yet even with those extraordinary measures, the toxic air grew worse, shrouding this capital city of more than 20 million in a soupy, metallic haze.
By , walking the dim streets was like strolling through a coal mine. The municipal air quality index read 308, rated “hazardous” by
States standards — a level at which people
should not set foot outdoors. Because of industrial coal burning, Chinese
cities regularly have air of that quality, among the world’s worst.
For many residents, the red alert — used for the first time since an emergency plan for pollution was unveiled two years ago — underscored the devil’s handshake that China has made in recent years: the trading of a healthy living environment for breakneck economic growth. Now, as Communist Party leaders try to transform this dystopian scenario, many Chinese are realizing lasting change could take years, maybe decades.
“I have to watch my child because there is no kindergarten today,” said Kan Tingting, 35, a manager of a cafe who stayed indoors with her 3-year-old daughter — one of some two million schoolchildren to remain at home Tuesday. “What bothers me the most is that my child may have a very negative view of nature. She loves nature much less than he would in a normal environment. I don’t want her to grow up thinking nature is ugly.”
In another corner of
a university lecturer, Wang Bei, was bunkered down at home with her 10-year-old
son. “Air pollution is a huge problem that we ignored early on, while we
concentrated on economic development,” she said. “Now we are paying the price
for that. It only takes a second for someone to fall gravely ill, but it takes
a long time to recover. Now China
is that ill person trying to recover from air pollution.”
The current spell of bad air began Sunday. By Monday morning, the quality had deteriorated to what the
States labels a “very unhealthy” level. Still,
it was not nearly as bad as the toxic cloud that afflicted the city in the
final weekend of November, when the concentration of fine, deadly particulate
matter in southern Beijing hit 40
times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.
That was the worst stretch of pollution this year, and municipal officials were roundly criticized for declaring only an orange alert — under which people are asked to minimize outdoor activities — rather than going to code red. The sudden announcement Monday night appeared to be an attempt by officials to make up for the oversight.
On Tuesday, the Beijing government’s official online news portal reported that the mayor, Wang Anshun, said the government must win the understanding and support of the people so both can work together to fight smog. The report said the mayor checked construction sites; inspected a government building’s parking lot to ensure 30 percent of official cars were not in use, as required by the red alert; and visited traffic police checkpoints.
A similar use of broad traffic restrictions in late 2014 resulted in 1.7 million cars being kept off the roads daily, the
Some international organizations applauded the decision to issue the alert, which is supposed to be done every time there is a prediction of heavy pollution for more than three days.
“The issuing of a ‘red’ pollution alert means, first and foremost, that the
authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously,”
Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, the representative of the World Health Organization
in China, said
in a written statement. The group helped lead a 2010 study whose data showed
outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China
in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total.
Greenpeace East Asia also praised
after criticizing it a week earlier for inaction. “The red alert is a welcome
sign of a different attitude from the Beijing
government,” said Dong Liansai, a climate and energy campaigner. “However, this,
the latest of a series of airpocalypses to hit Beijing,
is also a firm reminder of just how much more needs to be done to ensure safe
air for all.”
At the climate talks in
Chinese officials are discussing their government’s plans to tamp down coal use.
Many residents said on Tuesday that the issuing of the alert in the middle of
those talks, and the astronomical air pollution levels in late November, should
signal added urgency to those officials.
Monday’s announcement took most residents by surprise. Parents had to check with chat groups on their WeChat phone apps to see if schools were indeed shutting down. On Tuesday,
more than 3,200 schools generally obeyed the orders to close.
But by the afternoon, at least two international schools told parents they planned to reopen on Wednesday, even though city officials had imposed the red alert until on Thursday. Some workers said they would have no option but to drive daily to the office, in defiance of the regulation aimed at limiting car use to every other day.
“There is no other way for me to go to work besides driving,” said Zhao Lin, 36, a technology salesman. “I have to drive for more than an hour each way to commute to work every day.”
“I’m not supposed to drive tomorrow because my car has an even number license plate, but I have to,” he said. “They can fine me or dock me points. I have no choice. I think they can’t see my license plate in this smog, anyway.”
Since 2013, when an intense round of pollution hit northern
in January, Beijing has had a color-coded
emergency response plan to smog. That plan was strengthened with new measures
this March. Despite all that, Beijing
had never sounded a red alert, and residents wondered why. Did city officials
or the top Communist Party leaders worry they would lose face? Did they fear
the economic losses that might result?
“They probably didn’t declare a red alert last week because they didn’t want to slow down the economy,” said Ms. Wang, the university lecturer. “Shutting down factories is not ideal for the economy, but health should come first.”
Ms. Wang said she regularly checked a phone app to monitor air quality, and she and her son wore masks outdoors and turned on purifiers at home. But she said she was worried about the invisible effects on her son’s health.
She added: “I used to live in
so I could move there. Or anywhere in southern China
is better than the north.”
On one street in the city center, a young salesman, Liu Jia, sat on a bench, puffing away on a cigarette. Half the pedestrians around him were wearing masks.
“I can choose to smoke a cigarette,” he said, then looked up. “But there’s no choice in this.”
Above him, the sky was the color of ash.