China is a notoriously difficult country for outsiders to get a handle on, but two things are immediately obvious the second you exit the airport. One, that the country is undergoing an unprecedented level of economic growth. Two, the country is in the midst of an ecological catastrophe. You literally breathe in both of them.
Despite all I had read before going to China last month, I was a bit blasé about Beijing’s famous smog. I’ve lived in cities all my life and once spent a few months in Moscow — a place not exactly known for its pristine air quality. Surely, for a three-day visit, it couldn’t be that bad.
Unfortunately, my trip — a journalism fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center and the Better Hong Kong Foundation — happened to coincide with one of China’s worst smog episodes of the year: a giant cloud over most of China visible from space. Distances became difficult to judge, and the city’s famous downtown glowered menacingly out of the haze. On the ground in Beijing, conditions were what the U.S. embassy classified as “hazardous,” meaning: “Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older... Read more