Beijing Residents Struggle to Cope with Off-the-Charts Air Pollution

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Audio Transcript:

Jeb Sharp: If you followed the news over the weekend, you probably caught wind of the off-the-charts smog crisis in Beijing. On an unofficial air pollution scale of zero to 500 kept by the US embassy there, smog levels hit a jaw-dropping 755. The World's China correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad, is one of the millions in Beijing who's been gasping for breath. Mary Kay, how bad is it?

Mary Kay Magistad: Okay, well, on a clear day you can see the Western Hills, which are about sixteen miles away. Yesterday I couldn't see a block and a half. Basically there's cold air that's being held in place by warm air over the top of it, and there's no wind blowing through, so we're sort of stuck with whatever emissions there are for a few days. And this happens every few months in Beijing, but this is by far the worst that I can remember in 14 years of living here.

Sharp: What do you do, how do you live, when conditions are like this?

Magistad: Well, you stay inside, breathe shallow breaths, and hope that a strong wind comes through and blows it somewhere else.

Sharp: And are people there accepting, or are they angry? What's the mood?

Magistad: So on Weibo, which is China's version of Twitter, there have been something like 60 million tweets about the pollution. It's not just in Beijing, it's actually in several cities in northern China, because this is a regional issue. There are factories all around these northern provinces that are highly polluting. This time at least seven cities had very, very serious pollution. And so this has sparked a lively discussion on Weibo, with a lot of people asking why the government isn't doing more to move China more quickly to a cleaner type of development, not relying so much on dirty coal and low emission standards to try to further growth. The Chinese government already started to move about seven or eight years ago toward improving emission standards and trying to clean up to some extent the standards for emissions from new factories.

Sharp: Meantime how is the government responding?

Magistad: Well, it's interesting. In the past, in past years, the government tried to downplay pollution and even sort of pretended it wasn't pollution. They'd call it fog. Now they're admitting that there's serious pollution, particularly particulate matter of the fine variety, the kind that can get lodged in your lungs. And it's interesting how this came about. The US embassy here has monitoring instruments within the embassy grounds, and they've been publicizing via Twitter what the readings are every hour. So a lot of Chinese followers of Twitter have been keeping an eye on what the pollution readings are and after the Chinese government sort of sounded offended and made its representations to the US embassy and said, well, how would you like it if we put monitoring equipment in US cities, and the response was be our guest, the Chinese government, the Beijing government, has decided that it should be reporting levels as well and it has been reporting fairly accurately. But basically they're recognizing that this is an issue and they're encouraging people to keep exposure to a minimum, keep kids in, don't let them play outside until this passes.

Sharp: The World's China correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad, from Beijing. Thanks, Mary Kay.

Magistad: Thank you, Jeb.

Sharp: Just how thick is the smog in Beijing? We've got pictures of the CCTV Tower taken over the weekend. Good luck finding the building. The pictures are at