For Beijing residents, big diplomatic events are like birthday parties for children. We look forward to them eagerly – because along with the landing of presidents and potentates comes a clearing of the skies, a guaranteed week of perfect crystalline blueness. The Belt and Road Forum was welcomed by locals not so much for the exciting possibilities it offers for the extension of Chinese investment into Central Asian infrastructure, as for the hopes of an ecstatic spring week.
Those hopes were more than fulfilled. Along with the posters promising friendship, win-win cooperation and mutual benefit (accompanied by random security checks on foreigners’ papers), the Beijing sky cleared of even a particle of pollution. Children danced and sang, asthmatic old folk went jogging, and moods brightened. As ever, when the skies are clear, the hills were visible in the distance; a reminder of Beijing’s remarkably beautiful positioning between mountain ranges, something usually shrouded in the smog of modernity.
There’s all kinds of positive knock-on effects from the clean-up. Traffic comes off the roads, the streets are sparkling clean as an army of old folks is mobilized, and everybody is just in a generally better mood. Chinese cities live or die on their outdoors life, and the more everyone is happy to be outside, the better everything works.
But after the party comes the hangover, and while the post forum spike in pollution, as factories revved up once more for business, wasn’t that huge by Beijing standards, the smog was enough to take the edge off the spring for a few days. It was a reminder that, as much as the authorities struggle to keep the darkness of smog from swallowing the city entirely, it’s always still there, creeping around the edges.
The danger of any unliveable situation is that it becomes liveable, that we normalize what should be intolerable. That’s what’s happened with pollution across whole swathes of China; cancer-causing clouds have become a ‘natural’ hazard that people treat with the same attitude as they do thunderstorms or the tides. It can be hard to remember how new – in some cases – the pollution is, but also how things have gotten better.
That doesn’t just go for the sky. I talked with my friend Hongmei about the rivers of her childhood. “I went back four years ago to a river I used to swim in as a child,” she said, talking about the waters in the hills of Heilongjiang - ‘black dragon river.’ “And it was black! I always used to think that was a metaphor, but it was literally black. I think I’d die if I went swimming in it today.”
Hongmei is rich enough to have traveled. She was lyrical about the rivers and lakes of Canada – and the space. “So good to go out and be alone, for miles around.” “What do you do about the pollution with your little girl?” I asked. “I worry,” she said, “And I buy air filters.”
But others thought of it differently. Mrs Che, one of our older neighbors, told it straight. “I know the air is bad today, because my phone says so” – she showed me her weather app – “But you can’t see it. I remember when I was a young woman in 1981, and I came to the big city for the first time. Then I was living in Hebei, in Shijiazhuang. Ai-ya, you couldn’t believe it! Even on a good day, the smokestacks would be putting out black clouds.”
Our conversation had attracted interested onlookers. “I’m from Taiyuan,” said one gummy-mouthed elder, “To Taiyuan people, Beijing is nothing! Even your bad days are like our good days! You see this!” He grasped my white shirt in a familiar fashion. “This is a nice shirt! But if you hung it out to dry in Taiyuan, it would go black in an hour!” Taiyuan is the coal-producing heartland of China, and our interlocutor seemed almost proud of its pollution. “One day, I was coming home, and I heard my sister ahead of me on the road. “Older brother, where are you?” she called out. “Little sister, where are you?” I answered. We weren’t even twenty feet apart from each other – not further than that bush over there – and still we couldn’t see each other! That’s how bad our pollution is!”
“Is it still that bad?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “I haven’t been back for ten years. What is England like? I read you have a lot of factories there.”
“Where did you read that?” I asked, curiously.
“In your Di geng si,” he said.
“In our what?” I asked, thinking it was some kind of report or newspaper. “You know,” he said, “Your Di geng si. Very famous writer.”
“Ah,” I said, “In Charles Dickens. We don’t have many factories anymore. But the air is better.”
Mrs Che nodded. “You were smart,” she said. “You sent all the factories to China!”