The truth about the Beijing smog

At least two things strike me whenever I return to China: the blessed absence of bourgeois democracy and the laughable nature of much international media reporting on places like China (or indeed anywhere else of interest in the world). A good example is the ‘Beijing smog’. How many times has a news story appeared, published, say, in the New York Times and telling of the hellish smog in cities like Beijing? The story is then copied in media outlets in Australia, or Japan, or Europe or wherever. A stock picture is usually included. It may be of high-rises at sunset enshrouded in smog, or perhaps a ground-level shot of people wearing face-masks and gasping for breath. To be sure, there are days like this, as I have experienced from time to time. I too have worn a face mask on bad days and preferred to stay indoors, where the air-conditioning filters clean the air somewhat.

The problem with that kind of slanted media representation is that it convinces a large number of people, some of whom should know better, that Beijing’s residents are always gasping for air, that their eyes are always watering, that the sun is always hidden and that plants wither. So when I mention that I am in Beijing, people say without thinking, ‘Isn’t the air bad. How can you breathe?’ Every now and then I am tempted to say that I can’t indeed breathe in this apocalyptic hell-hole. The temptation to embellish a story is always there, so that your survival seems all the more miraculous.

The truth is that is not always like that. Take the last week, in which the air has been crisp, clear, and fresh. The sun shines by day and the stars gleam by night. Today I climbed Xiangshan (Fragrant Mountain) to the northwest of Beijing, relishing the air and sun while I sweated on the climb. And this is late winter, when the smog is supposed to be at its worst. Last July I was also here, and most days were clear and bright, with blue skies above. And I will be here for a while yet, so I am sure I will get plenty more clear days.

I guess the ‘free press’ of the world does not like these kinds of stories, since they undermine its agenda.


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