Masks and smog apps in polluted China
Many of the cars coming on to the streets should have low emissions, as they are new, but the sulphur content of vehicle fuel is very high. In Beijing, personal and public vehicles contribute the largest proportion of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants to the atmosphere.
People consult the China Air Quality app on their smartphones, getting the latest hourly update before deciding whether to go out. The US embassy reading is generally deemed the most reliable. The official data has become more dependable, but still often seems to understate readings.
Since the government has started being more open about pollution readings, and stopped calling smog “fog”, local people have become a lot more concerned. Many of them cannot afford air purifiers, filters or masks.
Beijing-based Sun Zhihui, who sells Alen air purifiers for a Shanghai company called Youla, used to have much better sales in Hong Kong. “Now we sell much more in Beijing and Shanghai,” he says. “Since the very polluted air this January I’ve been crazy busy. Many customers who never bought before are buying, and I only sleep a few hours every day. Sales are 10 times what they were in the summer,” says Sun.
“We don’t have any machines left; new machines can be made and shipped [at the] earliest in April. We’ve asked for more from the US, but it takes several months. It’s not like tofu you can make overnight.”
Heavily polluting industry was moved outside the city, but only as far as the foot of surrounding hills, where it does not disperse easily, and often blows back in. Air pollution alone is estimated to kill 700,000 people a year in China.
Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmentalist and the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times that there are things the government can do immediately to ease smog. “Dust from construction sites can be decreased if the government puts more efforts into supervision, and factory emissions should be improved,” says Ma.
On the street in the Sanlitun shopping district, a man with a big box of masks is doing a brisk trade. These appear to be surgical masks, which do not filter the air very effectively and are more commonly used by people at this time of year to stop spreading colds and flu.
Given that the official suppliers are all running out, it’s very unlikely these are the real thing.
Minxin Pei, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California, writes in Fortune magazine that the current pollution issue is “beyond shocking”. He believes it could have broader political ramifications if something is not done.
“For the Chinese government, this was merely one of many wake-up calls. The question on everyone’s mind is whether Beijing will finally muster the political will to implement policies to avert an ecological calamity that will almost certainly spell the end of the Chinese economic miracle and potentially lead to the fall of the Communist Party itself,” says Pei.
“The Chinese middle class, which is particularly conscious of quality-of-life issues, could very well become a powerful source of opposition to the party if it concludes that the one-party state is responsible for their daily miseries: poisonous air, toxic water, and unsafe food.”