Beijingers don masks to defend themselves against dirty air — and to make a fashion statement

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Audio Transcript: Aaron Schachter: And we're going to stick with Matthew for just a couple minutes here. Matthew, I've gotta ask you. Those face masks are certainly fashionable, but you know, this is a big, big problem, and face masks are not gonna solve it. Matthew Bell: That's right, and the Chinese government, interestingly, has done a 180 on this actually, Aaron. When the US embassy here in Beijing started monitoring air pollution and then putting that information out on Twitter a couple of years ago, the Chinese government took offense. They basically said Washington is taking a political cheap shot at China, but now China's environment ministry has its own monitoring program, and they put that information out. This is generally considered to be well-run, accurate data, and that's the information behind the smart phone applications that I was referring to in my story. Schachter: Why the sudden turn around? Bell: Probably the biggest factor has been these recent episodes of unbelievably shocking air pollution. Last month, in the city of Harbin, which is way up north, the smog got so bad you couldn't see halfway across the street. Schools closed, roads closed, that was Harbin. Earlier this year in Beijing, the capital, something very similar happened. The public is a lot more concerned at this point than ever. I talked about this, Aaron, the other day with a long time China watcher. Isabel Hilton is her name. She's been coming to China since the 1970s and she runs a website called China Dialogue, which cover environmental issues in China. Hilton told me, there's been a real shift on the issue of air pollution. Isabel Hilton: There was a time, maybe ten years ago, when people were almost proud of the smog, because it meant "we're industrializing, we're becoming a real country, we have the problems of modernity rather than the problems of the Middle Ages." So this was regarded as progress. That moment has definitely passed, and these very serious episodes have brought terrific pressure on the government. If you are the only power, you also are the only people to blame, and they know that. Schachter: What are some of the things that China is actually doing to change air quality? Bell: In September, the Chinese government came out with some targets and said that they would reduce coal consumption. They've been investing in public transportation, in alternative energies, in electric cars. But the thing is, environmentalists will tell you that it's probably not enough, because again, the problem gets back to coal. That's the real fundamental issue here, and they say that China is not being ambitious enough. And that's because the model of economic growth that China adopted 30 years ago has been dependent on cheap, plentiful energy in the form of coal. So if they're going to go in a different direction, that's a fundamental shift and it's not going to be solved quickly. Schachter: The World's Matthew Bell, in Beijing. Thank you very much. Bell: Thanks, Aaron.