People take videos of a flag-raising ceremony during smog at Tiananmen Square after a red alert was issued for heavy air pollution in Beijing, China, December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Lee
People take videos of a flag-raising ceremony during smog at Tiananmen Square after a red alert was issued for heavy air pollution in Beijing, China, December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Cynthia and I were standing on the rooftop of the teaching building, looking into the invisible end of the sky of Beijing. On that day, our physical education lesson was cancelled because of thick haze that enveloped the whole city. Everything was covered in milky white, from the playground to treetops. Reviewing for the upcoming history exam, I said to her, ‘in the Industrial Revolution, people cheered at the sight of smog from steam machines but it is the opposite nowadays.’ She nodded at me while putting on her mask on her mouth.

This is a piece of my typical school memories dated 4 years ago.

At that time, we considered ourselves lucky in the way that we eventually had information about the haze that was influencing our daily life. It was during that time that Chinese authority eventually started to publish PM 2.5 index to the public, the piece of information unreachable by the public before. It was then that the index became one of most common topics of conversation among citizens in Beijing.

Leaving Beijing for university in Hong Kong, I have not experienced such haze ever since but memories of white sky and blurry view still linger somewhere in my mind. It is last week that a piece of news brought the memory back to me. When I heard the news that on December 15, that PM 2.5 index soared to 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in many northern cities in China, I was shocked.

Once again, I heard the running joke that when the haze gets really seriously, I can’t even see you beside me. People share their photo of haze and joked that the photo does not even need filters.

When haze has merged into the background of a city, people tend to celebrate a single blue sky. During the APEC meeting in 2014, when government initiated large-scale emission reduction campaigns, my social media platform was flooded by photos of the clear sky taken by friends in Beijing. This is when the term APEC blue was invented, half praise and half satire.

Measures to stop thick haze did improve during the past four years in Beijing, so was public’s confidence towards a clear blue sky. The continuity of road space rationing regulations after the Olympics and the introduction of car license plate lottery system since 2011 are some of the innovative approaches taken by the government to tackle the problem. The government aims to keep the number of vehicles in Beijing below six million in 2017 and have been closing down coal-burning factories around Beijing.

It is interesting to consider why haze comes back and becomes even thicker despite of the huge efforts in the past years. Some say people somehow have ways to get around regulations. Moreover, given the limited role of environmental NGOs and the public in China, whether the government’s way of curbing haze is efficient and effective remains debatable.

More worrying is the haze in the context of the rising middle class in big cities in China. More and more citizens are not satisfied just to meet basic living needs. In the past, with the growing urbanization, people moved into big cities in the hope of getting better jobs and higher salaries with little choice even though the living environment is disappointing. Today sees more and more Chinese citizens who are financially secure and even affluent. They purchase high quality products, they question politics and they desire high-quality life for themselves and their children. The sad contrast is the fact that they live in a society where corruption is the way to get things done, unsafe food is prevailing in the shop and polluted environment is everywhere around them. Compared to decades ago, they have more choices regarding where to live and more power in voicing their opinions. Haze, a serious threat to their health, mood and that of their family, is becoming more and more intolerable for them. So it is not surprising that many decide to leave the capital and find other places where they can lead better lives.

My mother moved out of Beijing two years ago to a second-tier city in Western China, where she plans to spend her retired life. ‘I cannot bear the air in Beijing any more,’ said her, regarding air condition as a factor that influenced her decision.

The economic cost of such haze does not limit to the flights postponed, tourists deterred and school days canceled. It is more about Beijing or even China’s talent outflow in recent years. Studies show that a large portion of middle class in China is young university graduates and students, which is one of the key sources of talents in every society. I still remember a talk given by a Chinese teacher in my high school, during which he tried to persuade students to stay in China for university education rather than going abroad. ‘What are some reasons that make you want to study elsewhere? The only one I can think of is the better air condition abroad.’ We all laughed out heartily. Never could I imagine that this very reason could indeed influence the talent pool of Beijing. It is very costly for Beijing to lose talents who might have worked in Beijing if the air condition had been better. Although the quality of the environment is not the only factor that influence their career choices, it does cast a shadow on living and working in Beijing for some. It is questionable whether Beijing still has the power to attract and retain talents if such haze continues.

Some say that haze problem is something that countries in its developing stage might experience and could not be avoided. One evidence is the United States, typically in Los Angeles, which experienced similar problem in the 1940s. I believe that eventually the haze problem will be solved in Beijing but it is a matter of when. The point is whether the solution comes out before public’s patience and their trust in the government run out.

At a dinner table with some friends days ago, I asked one friend from Hong Kong who just been to Beijing how he thought of the air condition there. ‘Can it get even worse?’ jokingly he said. Squeezing out a smile, I realized there is something true. One positive thing about the day with the thickest haze is that everyday afterwards becomes clearer. While mouth masks can prevent bacteria from going into people’s mouth, it cannot prevent the public from voicing their own opinions.

Jingrui Xie

Jingrui is an undergraduate student in the University of Hong Kong majoring in accounting and finance and a visiting student majoring in Economics and Management in University of Oxford. With living experience in Beijing, Hong Kong and Oxford, she offers a global perspective on environmental and economic topics. She has long been interested in environmental sustainability and is exploring ways in which private sector can help tackle global warming.