The media's fixation with China's air quality

By Guy Rubin
Guy RubinIn his predictions for 2014, columnist Richard Turen suggested that travel sellers "must, in keeping with industry ethics, inform potential leisure travelers to China of the dangers [of air pollution] and the fact that residents of Beijing are now routinely wearing masks as they walk about the city" (Reality Check, Dec. 30: "Selling happiness and other predictions for 2014")

While it is fascinating to read Richard's usually prescient and insightful views, on this occasion I feel they are misleading on several counts.

First, I live in Beijing, and while a tiny minority do wear masks during bad pollution spikes, the vast majority don't. So, to allege that people routinely walk about the city in masks is uninformed, and the allegation's factual and conceptual inaccuracies perpetuate a media bias against China.

As he does not live in Beijing, Richard relies too much on media outlets to inform his views. He may well have missed the comment of Bridget Kendall, a BBC presenter visiting China last November, who said, "Everybody is talking about pollution in Beijing. I must say it's a lovely blue-sky day here ... today. I don't know what they are talking about."

Kendall made her observation a day after Western newspapers had published yet another series of apocalyptic-looking pictures of a heavily polluted Chinese capital. Her off-the-cuff remark reveals a lot because she was alluding to the chasm between reality and the way Western media present China to the world. I wish I had a penny for every guest of Imperial Tours who has made the same observation.

Why was everybody talking about air quality in Beijing but not about more polluted cities?

For example, the New York Times reported that New Delhi's average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from the monitor Punjabi Bagh was 473, more than twice Beijing's for the first three weeks of this year.

India suffers more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the World Health Organization, and a recent study found that Indians have the weakest lung function in a sample of nonsmokers from 17 countries. So, given that India's air pollution is as much as double China's, do "industry ethics" bind Richard to dissuading his clients from traveling there also?

A wider point relates to the nature of travel itself.

Richard suggests in the same article that travelers should avoid China because they might find themselves in a smoky venue in the evening, presenting a risk of respiratory illnesses. Once you start down this road of risk analysis, it can start getting absurdly subjective: For example, should I dissuade Chinese clients from traveling to the U.S. so they don't get shot? After all, as many as 81 people die of gunshot wounds daily in the U.S., and I hear that residents of New York are now routinely wearing bulletproof vests as they walk about the city.

Or, embracing Richard's logic, should I steer Americans away from Paris or Rome because the French and the Italians like the occasional puff? If, on the other hand, Richard's point is that smoking is now less widespread in Europe than in China, then I will observe that reputable tour operators to China can suggest countless restaurants where cigarette smoke is not an issue.

My underlying point is that the joy of travel is to explore other cultures, not all of whose values would play well back home. I recall coming close to an elephant stampede during a walking safari in Kenya, yet I would never warn people away from the unbridled excitement of a safari.

If there is anything useful or objective to glean from such warnings, it is that China is routinely held to a higher standard than other countries. That begs a question posed by Joshua Keating in Slate: "Why does China's air pollution get so much more attention in the international media? Part of it may simply be the fascination ... in the U.S. and Europe with anything having to do with China."

Whatever the reason, it might come as a surprise that air pollution, like many other issues, is being dealt with effectively here, since this is a country that knows how to get things done. A glance at the Beijing skyline reveals that this modern city is moving fast. What might take 300 years in the West can be accomplished far more quickly here.

Over the last 30 years, China has experienced unprecedented urbanization as staggering numbers of people have been lifted out of poverty to become the beneficiaries of economic reform.

In the old days, when that sort of thing happened in the West, the migration from rural to urban environments was generally reported as a good thing.

Similarly, when the deputy mayor of Beijing "declared war" on air pollution last July with an 84-point plan that named officials responsible for achieving a 25% reduction in particulate concentrations in five years, the Western media responded with a collective yawn.

And even as media pundits were reporting that Beijing's pollution would take 30 years to address, by November 2013 we already had observable results. Last Dec. 4, commenting about the improvement in air pollution in Beijing, I wrote on Imperial Tours' Facebook page that there had been "nothing in the foreign media about it, as though it is not happening, but there are at least 20 million witnesses to it."

Yet, when later that same day there was a pollution spike in Shanghai equal to a normal day in New Delhi, that story hit newspapers worldwide. Similarly, a pollution spike in Beijing on Jan. 14 for a few hours was widely reported. But what was not reported was that over that winter, air pollution in Beijing had enjoyed an average 4.5% year-over-year improvement. No country can withstand these arbitrary levels of media scrutiny.

The Chinese government is moving decisively on air pollution.

First, more than 8,300 polluting companies in surrounding Hebei province have been closed down, and the impact has been tremendous.

Second, 74 cement factories in nearby Shijiazhuang are being leveled as I write this, after which the western half of that industrial city will be redeveloped.

Further, China's national $277 billion environmental plan anticipates that by the end of 2015, China's road stock will run on China 5 gasoline and diesel (10 parts per million sulfur content), facilitating vehicle emissions standards far more stringent that those in the U.S. Through wide-ranging actions such as these and many more, the Chinese government is bringing air pollution under control more quickly than anyone imagined possible.

That said, let me be clear: The media doesn't lie. There are pollution spikes every so often in China, such as the ones reported during winter, the low season for travel. Most people aren't affected by an air quality index of 150 or less, which is well above Beijing's current yearly average of 116 as reported by air.fresh-ideas.cc on Feb. 10. Our visitors, especially those visiting for three or four days during the cleaner air of the tourism season, rarely notice.

Nor would I suggest that prolonged, long-term exposure to polluted air is not harmful. That is why the government is tackling this issue with such urgency. Fortunately, visitors are not subjected to long periods of breathing polluted air.

The suggestion that the Western media are ideologically and emotionally charged in their coverage of China, especially in light of its legion laudable achievements, is nothing new. What I ask from savvy and experienced travel agents such as Richard Turen, his clients and you, his readers, is to interpret the reporting critically and in context and not fall prey to inherent bias.

To be inspired by China's history, culture and success and to respect, appreciate and learn all that the Chinese people have to teach, you must travel here. Please do so without fear of bad air and smoky rooms. Every travel experience anywhere has its risks, but it is inadvertently biased and misguided to dissuade tourists from visiting China on account of air pollution.

Guy Rubin, managing partner of Imperial Tours (www.imperialtours.net), a luxury inbound tour operator for China, has been based in Beijing since 1997. 
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