How is this real and not a joke from a satirical science fiction novel about a dystopian polluted future
Okay, look. I’m in Beijing right now. Beijing has some pretty bad smog. But this image is a little deceptive. et’s start with the picture itself. Everything looks darker and smoggier because it’s sunrise. Even on bad smog days, the smog in Beijing does not look like that when the sun is up. Here is a photo I took on a hazardous pollution day:
And here is a photo from the same bridge, but on a “good” air day:
It’s a pretty stark difference! But even the bad day doesn’t look much like the picture in the previous post, even though the pollution levels were pretty much the same (AQI count ranging from mid-300s to 400s throughout the day).
Second, Chinese people were not crowding into Tiananmen Square to watch the sun rise on a screen. See how few people there are in that picture? I walk by Tiananmen every weekday morning to get to work, and there are NEVER that few people out there. This is China! There are a lot of people here! Even in the pouring rain, there are more people in Tiananmen. Which makes sense! It was 6:30 in the morning and the pollution was terrible. People were probably eat breakfast, getting dressed, making lunch, heading out to work. It’s not like there’s a ton of Beijingers who make a point of watching the sun rise every morning. Anyway, where would you go to watch the sun rise? There’s tall buildings everywhere! Moreover, most of the people in Tiananmen on any given day aren’t even Beijingers. They’re tourists, or people selling noisy light-up tops and Chinese flags and manchu empress headbands to the tourists. Your average Beijinger isn’t going to go into Tiananmen because they would have to stand in line, get their bag scanned, get wanded with a metal detector, and then shove their way through a crowded square. If you want to cross Tiananmen, you generally go around.
So what we have in this picture is a tiny handful of early morning tourists and vendors in an unusually deserted Tiananmen Square, and most of them are ignoring the bright screen that is showing the sun rise. That doesn’t really fit the narrative, does it?
Also, let’s talk about the pollution for a minute. Beijing has some pretty bad pollution. The past three days, it’s mostly been in the 150-250 range. For comparison, LA is more like high 60s. So that’s pretty bad. But that’s not what was in the Tiananmen picture. Thursday was an unusually bad day— it was mostly in the high 300s all day. I went to meet my friend Xinxian at the subway stop and found her staring at the moon— despite being high up in the sky, it was still the color of a smoker’s teeth. But the next day, the pollution levels peaked in the 150s, and got down to the 40s, and the moon was bright and shiny. Some weeks the pollution meter never gets out of the yellow, and some weeks it’s mostly bright red. When it gets into the dark red for more than two days in a row, the government starts imposing driving limits and similar things until the air improves.
I could point out other misleading things about the article, like how the “industrial” masks it mentions are usually just a filter covered in patterned cloth (mine has purple flowers on it!), but really, all of this is beside the point.
The only China most westerners care about is the China inside their heads, the China that could have been a communist utopia, or that’s going to take us all over, or that’s a Stalinist police state, or whatever. This is how Mike Daisy got to be on This American Life with his lies. This is why an author that could have focused on the 1000+ pollution levels of Harbin, instead talks about Tiananmen Square. Because it’s a symbol. And to most of you, that’s all China is.