Behind the Masks

by Ming Yang

14th December 2016, the flight lands at Beijing International Airport. 4 o’clock in the afternoon, you can barely see anything from far away, not because the sun sets earlier in winter, but because of the smog.

I got my luggage, found my dad, came out of the airport building, and walked to the car park to drive home. After breathing over 10 hours of airplane ‘reserved’ air in an uncomfortable seat, where I am unable to fully stretch my legs (sorry, I can only afford economy class, and sorry, I’m above average height), I took a deep breath without thinking when I stepped outside, expecting fresh air to fill my lungs. Cough. The smell of burning coal and tail gas that’s hiding quietly in the air captured every single corner inside my nose and lungs. Yikes. This is not what I expected. It has been 4 years since I last spent my winter holidays in Beijing, and the last time I was back in Beijing in winter, the condition of the air was nowhere near today’s. Bear in mind that in summertime (and even spring), the smog situation in Beijing is much better, because of longer daylight hours, more sunlight and trees.

© Ming Yang

So, what is happening in Beijing? I don’t want to go into too many practical details about the smog, because it’s complicated. Just a brief overview: most of the air pollution in Beijing comes from coal plants to the south of Beijing, and the source is PM2.5 (fine particulate matter), which is released mainly by the burning of coal. PM2.5 can reduce visibility, and it is very damaging to humans’ health, because it is small enough that it can bypass human mucus and travel to the lungs, and cause all sorts of lung diseases (e.g.: cancer, breathing disorders). Air pollution is severe across different cities in China, not only in Beijing. Outdoor air pollution contributes to the deaths of an estimated 1.6 million people in China every year, equivalent to 4,400 people a day.

I am a person who likes wandering around the streets and staying outdoors the whole day, and I didn’t see how Beijing’s air quality could do me any harm. I just have to wear masks every single day when I am outdoors in Beijing. Mask? Doesn’t seem too bad, right? First day back home, after walking around the city centre and taking the subway back home, I took off my mask and realised it has turned black. And it is the same every day when the concentration of PM2.5 is high and the visibility is low. The masks people wear in Beijing on a daily basis when the smog is bad, are designed to filter out the majority of the damaging substances in the air, in particular PM2.5. And because PM2.5 is actually a solid particle pollutant, it can be seen from the colour of the mask that as you breathe in, it gets stuck to the surface of the mask.

However, we all know that the mask is not the solution to protecting our health, and it is certainly not the solution to better air conditions. In the past, Beijing’s government has temporarily closed schools, factories, construction sites, and limited half of the privately owned cars on the road, when the air condition gets the ‘red alert’, when you can barely see anything far away and PM2.5 concentrations are severe. Through this type of regulations, it takes some pressure off, and the air condition gets better. But a long-term plan is still needed. The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang addressed the problem of air pollution during the China’s National People’s Congress last year, and proposed a Five-Year Plan (FYP) up to 2021 for better air quality. Regulations on limiting industry pollution of PM2.5, for example, is one of the major issues addressed in Li’s speech. Other policies such as an increase in the use of environmentally friendly energy sources, control of vehicle usage, and reduction and cleaner usage of coal are also part of the plan. There is a lot to say, and even more can be done. I hope the government can use its full capacity to work together and efficiently tackle air quality issues.

The majority of people have the impression that Beijing is smoggy 24/7, but I have to say it’s not always like that: the majority of time in Beijing, especially in the summer, the air is fresh and the skies are blue. That is why I love to walk around the city centre, go between old buildings, meet citizens from different backgrounds, and listen to all the stories that are going on behind this never-stopping engine which I call home, Beijing. But with better air quality control, fewer people, including my family (and my dogs), would suffer from health problems arising from air pollution. Air is not someone else’s property, it is free for everyone, and everyone has the right to breathe clean and fresh air. Beijing, the ‘mask-wearing city’, is such an amazing place full of history, diversity and energy. We put the ‘mask’ on her for us, for the sake of development. It is now time, and our responsibility to take that ‘mask’ off, and to remove the obstacle for people to get to know her and discover her beauty.

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