I arrive in Beijing and the air quality is dreadful. Visibility is so diminished that the tops of skyscrapers and the end of the street dissolve into the haze. It is a strange experience, neither tasting nor feeling smoky and therefore being all the more disturbing. Public information posters present the health risks matter of factly in cartoon form.
A lot of people are wearing masks, which range from flowery to functional – 3M respirator style which are supposed to be effective at capturing the small and damaging particles (PM2.5) before they get to your lungs. I don’t buy one, firstly out of scepticism as to how well they work, and secondly because it will increase the already highly invasive staring at my appearance.
Ahead of the APEC summit, the government has ordered a number of factories to close. Beijingers will also enjoy a public holiday in an attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road. It is akin to dusting the house and hiding all your untidy belongings in the attic before visitors arrive.
Nobody knows precisely why these events are so acute in recent years – a combination of coal, cars and even cooking according to some reports. The geography of Beijing means that the poor air gets trapped until the wind changes direction. Older Beijingers tell me they never recollect it being this bad, even when they were growing up and dirty factories surrounded the city.
I posit a theory with a few folks that maybe it would be a good thing to have the smog when the APEC leaders arrive. They couldn’t very well not discuss pollution and climate change then, with the fug enveloping them. This is not entertained popularly.
The next day, the AQI changes from nearly 400 to less than 40. The sky is clear blue. Following the sound of morning ablutions, coughs that sound like cleaning the ashes from a dusty grate, the city collectively forgets.