Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Harmonious Chinese Air

Early this afternoon I noticed an especially harmonious moment in China. U.S. State Department facilities in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu reported nearly identical "unhealthy" air quality readings at 1:00 p.m.: 154, 153, 156, and 154, respectively.

A 190 reading from Shengyang was less harmonious, though still in the "unhealthy" category.

My experiences of days with obviously bad air in each of these cities easily come to mind. I am also reminded of similar days in many other Chinese cities. Sometimes I expected it, such as in Shijiazhuang which I knew was in a region with many coal-based power plants and industries. Sometimes I did not, such as in Liuzhou which is set in the midst of incredible natural scenery. Now that hourly and daily information like the above is available to check, I wonder how many times in the past a blueish sky tricked me into thinking the day's air wasn't so bad. In other words, the overall air pollution was probably worse than I thought. And I had already thought it was pretty bad.

The above readings are just a snapshot of ever-changing pollution levels from single locations in only the few Chinese cities covered by the U.S. State Department. Yet their momentary similarity despite coming from very different geographic regions is at least symbolic of the fact that air pollution is a widespread problem in China—presumably not what the Chinese government has in mind when it mentions "harmony". Although Beijing may receive the most attention, avoiding it or even all of the above cities is not enough to have a good chance of finding regularly clean air there. You could even find worse.

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