Beijing smog: When growth trumps life in China

A woman wearing a mask walks on a pedestrian bridge on a hazy day in Beijing

Beijing's air pollution has soared to hazardous levels, but cleaning up the problem is not straightforward, and is dependant on prioritising quality of life over economic growth.

When I wake up in the morning, I pause briefly before opening my curtains, and what I see out of my window is likely to set the tone for the rest of the day.

I am not checking up on the weather. Instead, I want to know exactly how bad the pollution is going to be. On some mornings, it is truly appalling. It is as if the whole city has been turned into a smokers' lounge with a yellowish, nicotine colour staining the sky.

And this month, pollution in Beijing went from bad to... well, dangerous.

Air pollution soared past levels considered hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO). A quick disclaimer here - I was actually on the sunny island of Hainan breathing in fresh sea air, when the smog hit the capital.

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But back in Beijing, hospitals were overrun by the young and the old, suffering from respiratory problems. People were warned to stay indoors. The capital's streets were unusually quiet.

Sales of air purifiers for homes - as well as face masks - rocketed and some stores simply ran out. Even for a city that is used to pollution, this was an emergency.

After my return to the capital, you could still taste the pollution, you can see it, and for that reason, the authorities can no longer deny it.

For years, they have tried. The government often played down the pollution in the capital, insisting it was merely fog, despite evidence to the contrary that was plain for all to see.

A man wearing a mask walks under the trees during severe pollution on January 23, 2013 in Beijing. Visibility was down to 100m in some places due to the severe pollution

It was a position that could never hold and, following public pressure, the authorities introduced new pollution readings at the beginning of this year.

They were prompted by the hourly air-quality readings published by the US embassy in Beijing, which the authorities had previously denounced as "foreign interference".

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There are still hundreds of millions of Chinese who want the keys to their first car, their first air-conditioner, even a fridge. ”

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And so, when this smog hit, the state media - for the first time on this issue - barrelled in.

The pollution story led China's main evening TV bulletin. Even the People's Daily - the mouthpiece of the Communist Party - ran a headline asking "What's wrong with our air?"

Well, the straightforward answer is: quite a lot. The problems are caused by China developing at a speed and scale unprecedented in history.

It has been growth at all costs, resulting in widespread environmental degradation.

Coal-burning energy plants power the country's factories, they provide the heat for hundreds of millions of homes, but they also spew out toxins into the air.

In Beijing alone, five million cars choke the streets - an illustration of the country's growing prosperity. But all these vehicles - normally bumper to bumper - are also a sign of a country that is not coming to terms with pollution.

A man shops for air purifiers in Beijing on January 15, 2013 Air purifiers are proving a popular purchase

And it is not just the air quality. China's lakes, rivers and underground water supplies have all been badly polluted by lightly regulated industry. Almost no-one in Beijing trusts the water that comes out of their taps.

So maybe, just maybe, the Great Smog of Beijing in recent days will mark a turning point. A time when the Chinese say: "You know what, enough is enough. We need to prioritise quality of life over economic growth."

In recent months, there had been several large-scale demonstrations against factories being built in various cities. Slowly, a not-in-my-back-yard crowd is emerging in China.

But a huge sea-change looks unlikely - for now, anyway. Economic growth remains the government's top priority. Without it, the authorities worry about instability, if large numbers of people are left unemployed.

There are still hundreds of millions of Chinese who want the keys to their first car, their first air-conditioner, even a fridge. Who is going to be the one to deny them their dream?

For that reason, clean air is likely to remain a rarity in Beijing for years to come. Some wealthy Chinese are voting with their feet and taking their kids to live in Canada or Australia.

But for most, that is not an option.

As for me, after two and a half years of living here, I have ordered my first air purifier. And I now wear a face mask for my bike ride to work. And every morning, before opening my curtains, I pause and hope that the wind has blown the pollution away.

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