Communist credibility shrouded in smog

There would be a delicious irony if China’s autocratic communist rule was brought to an end not by ideology but by the determination of its people to breathe clean air.

Strangely enough the prospect is not entirely implausible given events of the past week in Beijing.

The capital sits way in the north of this nation, huddling close to the vast and arid Mongolian steppes. It is a bleak landscape that reflects – or stimulated? – the core brutality of the communist regime.

On a visit a few years back, I stayed at the Beijing International Hotel. In the manner of communist fascination with imposing edifices the hotel had a massive reception foyer that seemed to be around 100m across. If you could drag your eyes away from the security spooks with their earpieces staring at you with an undisguised and implacable message that errant behaviour would not be tolerated, a strange phenomenon became apparent.

If you gazed across the foyer in the late afternoon sun penetrating the front windows you could see what appeared to be a miasma of smoke wafting just above floor level. Then realisation dawned that this was simply the outside air entering the foyer through the automatic opening doors. What looked to be a low-lying cloud of smoke inside was actually just the air everyone outside was breathing. It was a very scary notion.

But another revelation was to come.

That night, after watching the hustle and bustle of Beijing through smog that seemed like curtains shrouding everything in a haze resembling the cigar den of a backstreet bar, I retired to sleep. Sometime in the early morning I awoke to a violent storm that was vibrating the room windows like an mini earthquake.

It sounded as if a torrential deluge was beating against the glass and I seriously feared the panes would break. But when I pulled back the real curtains, there was no rain at all. This was just a massive, demonic wind buffeting Beijing as if to cartwheel it away from the steppes like some tumbleweed blowing through an American western movie. It was an awesome event.

When I rose for breakfast, I expected to see scenes of damage outside but all was normal. The sun shone and – miraculously – the air was clear and the sky was blue. All in all a beautiful day. The contrast to the smog-shrouded previous day was stark.

Still business trips demand that you keep moving and so I packed and made my way to Beijing International Airport. The sheer size of this vast gateway is a story for another day.

What was freaky was that by the time I was ensconced in my aircraft a couple of hours later, the brown smog had returned. My mind could hardly grasp the reality since the gale that tore through the city just a few hours earlier must surely have dispersed the haze to the four corners of the earth. But, no.

As we took off and soared to cruising height on the way to Shanghai-Hong Kong, you could see far, far below this giant brown stain that drifted the full length of the Chinese coast. To be as visible as it was must have meant it was, say 100 kilometres wide and thousands in length.

This is the reality of China’s smog crisis. So, when pollution levels in Beijing this week reached 33 times the recommended safe standard of the World Health Organisation, Chinese commoners and the media started a clamour of protest that appears to be making the leadership take notice. That the media were allowed to comment indicates China’s new ruling team recognises it must do something or risk public repudiation.

Nothing will happen quickly and the problem may take generations to rectify but even if a start is made, it would be a huge symbol of progress.

Oh, and 33 times worse than safe levels is not much different to a normal day in Beijing. Yes, world, we have a problem here.