Pretty much every day in China began with us asking, “Is it sunny?” No, we weren’t in a dark room asking someone who had just come in from outdoors. We would ask this question to each other while standing in the street staring up at the sky. Such is the smog in China. (The glaring exception to this was Tibet in the southwest, where the sky was crystal clear, almost to a fault, and the sun penetrated the thin air so intensely that we spent most days praying for some respite in the form of cloud cover.)
So, I was not at all surprised to learn that, according to this article in the International Herald Tribune, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. What’s more, no one talks about it. People say it’s hazy or foggy. Not smoggy. Not only that, but they can’t talk about it. According to the article, though the US embassy in Beijing posts a daily air-quality rating on the internet, it is blocked throughout China. Censorship and internet policing is vigilant. (As such, I waited until I left the country to publish the last post about Tibet, just in case…)
We would stand there and see faint outlines of shadows, and be fairly certain that there was no cloud cover. Yet we could often barely make out the sun. City views from high-up places were all but non-existent.
To their credit, they are working on it. Solar water heaters and other solar-powered devices are everywhere, as are electric motorbikes and bicycles. But it is not enough.
China has a lot going for it. I was pleasantly surprised – perhaps even shocked – at the level of development. The streets are relatively clean, the sidewalks are broad, stores are busy, unemployment is still low compared to the West. Development is especially striking in regards to trains, highways, subways, buses, and other aspects of transportation infrastructure, which is far superior to that in the US – newer, faster, and higher capacity. (After spending 5+ weeks in India and a month in China, I am baffled at how people can even begin to compare the two. From my perspective, China seemed light years ahead of India.) But, given the perpetually gray skies covering Eastern and Central China, one has to wonder if it is worth the cost, both to China and to the rest of the world. (The whole no-freedom-of-speech thing really sucks too, but I’ll leave that issue for another day…)