Living under a cloud in Beijing

As I headed across Beijing in a cab on Wednesday evening, a few drops of rain began to sprinkle on the windscreen. The cabbie flicked his wipers on, but only succeeded in smearing a thick, brownish-grey layer of grime over the windscreen, completely blocking out his line of vision.

“Can’t see,” he chuckled, as he navigated the next intersection blind.

The rain had come after seven straight days of heavy smog which rated “hazardous” on the air quality index, and was washing down a cocktail of factory soot and dust from the Gobi desert.

For a week, a toxic cloud spanning 1.43 million square kilometres had enveloped most of Northern China, an area more than six times the size of Victoria.

When the pollution level tops 500 on the air quality index, as it does with increasing frequency in Beijing, it is known as going “beyond index”, worse levels of toxicity than even the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard measures can handle. It is also means the amount of particulate matter in the air is 20 times that deemed safe by the World Health Organisation.

As the city is shrouded in a post-apocalyptic haze, your eyes burn, your chest tightens and you can literally smell and taste the soot in the air.

It dominates conversation in China, and public anger is mounting, amid alarming headlines plastered over newspapers worldwide.

Here’s a sample of the smog-related stories published raised recently: A spike in a type of lung cancer has been linked to worsening air quality, and is having a far greater health impact than the SARS epidemic in 2003; half a million people die prematurely every year in China because of pollution; pollution is now the single biggest factor prompting Chinese people to move overseas; Chinese scientists say the pollution is so bad it resembles a “nuclear winter”, with slowing photoysynthesis potentially wreaking havoc on the country’s food supply.

But my favourite newsbyte was the human touch displayed by President Xi Jinping, who made a surprise visit to a Beijing hutong, or laneway, to meet and greet locals   this week.

The state-run China Daily dutifully reported the news that “netizens hailed the President for braving the smog” and noted how he was “not wearing a face mask”. One report compared Mr Xi's visit  to a Japanese mayor drinking a glass of water after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

As for me, I had my own death-defying feat to remember: flying blind through an intersection in one of the busiest cities in the world.

This story Living under a cloud in Beijing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.