Where There’s Smoke

There has been much activity in the international press and the Chinese social media lately regarding the deteriorating quality of air in Dragonland. Chinese citizens are upset that they are forced to breathe very dirty air. On one day recently the official government body in charge of monitoring the air quality in Beijing classified it as “Not too bad, really.”  But according to an air quality measurement device mounted on top of the US Embassy in that ancient city, it was “Wow! This air sucks! I mean, run inside right now and find some oxygen as quick as you can!”

(Please see the footnote below for further clarification of these highly technical appraisals.)

Obviously, the two assessments do not agree. Part of this is due to the way the air quality is measured.

The Chinese air quality measurement device was made in North Korea, which has a special trade relationship with China; North Korea imports 99% of its food and all of its handcuffs from China, while North Korea exports to China kazoos and air quality measurement devices. This device, the SmogMaster5000, appears to be a whistle attached to a red balloon and a speedometer from a ’64 Chevy Impala. The SmogMaster5000 is available online for $1.98, plus $1,000 shipping fees, plus another $300 in unspecified handling and transaction-smoothing costs.

The Americans, in contrast, use a Swiss device of unsurpassed precision, the ZauberLuft1000, which is assembled by highly trained technicians in a clean room kept as taint free and pure as the air was in a Swiss meadow one thousand years ago. The ZL-1000 is very expensive, and if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.

The other main difference in air quality readings is that the Chinese results do not include particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers, while the Americans do include them. (Many health professionals believe that the American measurement presents a fuller and more accurate picture of the air quality in China.) As far as these units of pollution badness go, the extra-fine, teeny-tiny bits can be inhaled and travel down into the lungs, where they can cause serious respiratory symptoms, heart disease, childhood illnesses and terminal halitosis. It’s like being born and raised in a coal mine.

Because Chinese authorities wish to avoid even the slightest appearance of trouble and embarrassment, and because they hope that ordinary citizens are really dumb, they have suggested new designations and guidelines for air pollution particles. NH-1 particles are too big to enter your nose or mouth, and so are considered “safe”; NH-2 particles are small enough to enter the nostrils but are big enough to be captured by nose hairs; and the NH-3 particles are so small as to evade nose hairs and pass all the way down into the lungs, where they can do great damage.  X-ray photographs of these beastly little NH-3 particles reveal them to be so awful, so horrific, that it would be irresponsible to publish them here; if you saw them they would make you sick and give you nightmares.

In another example of special privilege for China’s elite, expensive air purification equipment has been installed in offices, conference rooms and private homes used by the cream of the Communist Party crop, since they don’t want to breathe the dirty air, either. Currently one of the best jobs in Beijing is limo driver, since the highest-ranking officials are not only ferried to and fro in limousines, but they carry their own clean air in mobile air supply packs supplied by North Korea.

The limo drivers get to breathe residual clean air during the trip, and then retain as much as possible by keeping the windows up.

In a rare display of sensitivity to popular discontent, Hua Lei, vice director of Beijing’s environmental monitoring center, has announced that common citizens will be allowed to tour the monitoring facilities. (Among the party elite, common citizens are called “filters,” since they breathe in and absorb the dirty air.) There has not been any indication that the measuring standards or monitoring equipment will change, but Mr Hua is confident that allowing people to see the offices for themselves will “allay their fears”. Um, I don’t really believe that providing tours will do very much to mitigate fears regarding air pollution, especially if no changes are to be made either to measuring procedures or equipment, but I guess this is the way that Chinese bureaucrats think.

Part of the excessive air pollution is caused by the unregulated factories that belch and spew great gobs of airborne gunk into the environs. The lion’s share, or rather, the dragon’s share of factories relies upon coal to provide power, and coal burning technology in China is notoriously out-of-date and dirty. Coal is used to heat homes all across China, and even powers such common kitchen appliances as coffee pots, blenders and rice cookers, which have been modified to suit the Chinese market by using a few lumps of coal to make them function. (Three out of five Chinese now concede that they prefer their rice with a slightly smoky taste.)

But analysis suggests that in recent years the greatest contribution comes from the profusion of newly imported cars and trucks. China has emerged as the juiciest new market in the world for cars, and every manufacturer from Germany, France and Italy to the US and Japan is bringing home record profits by selling record numbers of vehicles there.

Contrary to long-standing norms of American car branding identity — Buicks are for really old guys, Corvettes for mature guys who want to look younger, Volvos for the granola-eating Birkenstock set, VW’s the choice of hip, young hot-rodders and so forth — Chinese consumers have taken foreign and domestic car brands and stamped their own set of stereotypes on them. Dairy executives who mix Melamine with milk powder prefer the Chinese-made Chery; thugs who beat up journalists and other supporters when they try to visit dissident Chen Guangcheng drive a BYD; and plain clothes police who drag protesters away from Tiananmen Square like the locally produced Geely.

But there’s a new source of air pollution in China, although the Communist Party doesn’t like to talk about it. International scientists have determined that much of the smoggy, unhealthy air in China is due to all the protesters lighting themselves on fire.  Human beings are not considered a green energy source, and the amount of smoke and toxic particulate matter they produce is considerable.

International journalists in China are convinced that the rampant corruption from the highest levels of the Communist Party down to its lowest strata prevents not only truthful assessments, but also any chances for ameliorating the air pollution problems. I was informed of an anti-corruption convention to be held in Beijing recently – was even hoping to attend — but found that the organizers were bribed to cancel it. Witnesses say they saw a man wearing a mask hand over a briefcase and then disappear into the smog.

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