China: Society and the Smog

25th Jun, 2014

“The smog buried my marriage”: A recent story much reported by the Chinese press involves a man blaming the soaring urban pollution levels for the failure of his marriage. Mr Wang, a resident of Beijing, has stated that his wife and son were forced to relocate due to the endemic smog causing health problems for the child, which in turn put irreversible strain on the couple’s relationship.

This consummate anger towards the state of living conditions is far from an isolated case. In February, a group of artists played dead in front of the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, all of them wearing dust masks, in order to protest against the perma-grey skies. Meanwhile, a jar of air sealed in the South of France has just sold for $860 – a reminder that for all China’s recent economic success, the only thing many people are searching for is a breath of fresh air.

People ride along a street on a smoggy day in Daqing

It is clear from the examples above that the social impacts of the smog reach far beyond direct health risks. Moreover, concern about perceived health risks has permeated into an increasing number of aspects of daily life – rather than simply being worried about inhaling polluted air, many members of the population believe that anything lying inside China’s borders is “toxic”.

This level of paranoia can often lead to extreme solutions: the best example I’ve heard is from a friend in Hong Kong, who has witnessed scores of mainland Chinese entering into Hong Kong to purchase items such as baby food (that are ironically most likely produced in China) at a hugely inflated price, simply to avoid buying “Chinese” goods.

If there is a silver lining (although that saying doesn’t seem particularly apt in this instance), it is that numerous companies are coming up with ingenious ideas to combat the effects of pollution felt by individuals. The dust mask and air purifier industries are understandably booming and creative technology companies are producing new apps every week: one of the most popular is “China Air Pollution Index” which allows the user to keep a constant track of local air particulate levels, and received as many as 58,000 daily downloads last year.

But these small compensations are far from enough for the average Chinese citizen. Pollution remains the single biggest source of complaint among young people, and it is the educated, middle-class Chinese (whose support is crucial to the Communist Party maintaining its grip on power) that carry out the majority of environmental protests.

In fact, aside from India, China boasts the highest percentage (10.1%) of respondents that claim to be an active member of an environmental organisation, according to Trajectory Global Foresight data collected between 2011 and 2013. In other words, people are unsatisfied with the current situation with regards to pollution and as a result some are taking the quest for purer air into their own hands.

While threefold efforts are being made to clean up China’s air, water and soil (an agreement with the United States was reached in February with both countries pledging to intensify efforts to address climate change via a common platform ahead of next year’s global summit on the issue) it is vital that the government works to gain back the trust of the people before the unrest bubbles over.

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Martha Aitken is a former intern at Trajectory, currently travelling overseas before studying at Cambridge in the Autumn. She is kindly sharing some personal observations from her time in Beijing this year.