The engines of Chinese airlines have to be overhauled and replaced more frequently than elsewhere because operating in Chinese air corrodes the turbine blades faster. In Tangshan, a large industrial, coastal city 125 miles east of Beijing, people can tell which way the wind is blowing by what color the smog is. Grayish color smog comes from iron deposits blown from steel mills to the south; whitish smog comes from chemical factories to the east; and black dust comes from the coal and coking plant to the west. Tangshan itself is home to many dirty factories and plants such as Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant and Capital Iron and Steel, both of which were relocated to Tangshan from Beijing to reduce pollution there.

Air pollution is believed to have significantly reduced crop production. Studies based on satellite imagery and ground-based observation suggest that particles of suspended pollutants scatter sun light over two thirds of eastern China resulting in harvests of rice and winter wheat that may be 5 to 30 percent less than if there was no pollution.

Impact of Chinese Air Pollution on Health

Jennifer Duggan wrote in The Guardian, In October 2013, the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified air pollution as carcinogenic. It stated that there is "sufficient evidence" that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer and also linked it with an increased risk of bladder cancer. It said that exposure has increased significantly particularly in "rapidly industrial countries with large populations" such as China. "The air we breath has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances", Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Section said in a press released. "We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths." [Source: Jennifer Duggan, The Guardian, October 23, 2013]

China's smog has already been widely linked to respiratory illnesses and according to the state news agency Xinhua, medical experts warned that there will be an increase in the number of people needing treatment after the high levels in Harbin. "The impact of air pollution on people will be gradual. There won't be a sudden outbreak of symptoms, but normally three to five days after the smoggy weather occurs, there is a peak in the number of people seeing doctors," Deng Ying, a doctor at the Second Affiliated Hospital of Harbin Medical University was quoted as saying. Earlier it was announced that cancer is the leading cause of death in the capital Beijing. While in Shanghai it was reported that the number of cases of tumors had risen. According to figures from the Health and Family Planning Commission 36,000 people in the city die of cancer a year.

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Residents in the capital have taken to mocking their famously filthy air and its attendant health hazards with the expression "Beijing cough." Meanwhile, Shanghai's Environmental Protection Bureau has introduced a cartoon mascot to communicate daily air quality on its website: a pig-tailed girl who bursts into tears when smog reaches hazardous levels. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2013 >><<]

“Beijing resident Zhang Jian takes his 2-year-old son to a doctor regularly to treat the toddler's chronic sinus infection. "It's definitely related to the pollution," said Zhang, 35, who wore a disposable mask at an overcrowded children's hospital recently. "My son snores and his nose is blocked constantly. It's a problem because he's too young to clear his nose like adults." The doctor's visit and treatment cost Zhang about $320 — nearly a week's pay for the IT professional. >><<

During the period of heavy smog in Beijing in January 2013 Bloomberg reported that the head of cardiology at a Beijing hospital said that the number of people coming into emergency rooms with heart attacks doubled. In November 2013 the New York Times reported that an official Chinese news report said an 8-year-old girl near Shanghai was hospitalized with lung cancer, the youngest such victim in China. Her doctor blamed air pollution.

Impact of Air Pollution on the Chinese Economy

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When a thick quilt of smog enveloped swaths of China earlier this month, it set in motion a costly chain reaction for the world's No. 2 economy. Authorities canceled flights across northern China and ordered some factories shut. Hospitals were flooded with hacking patients.A fire in an empty furniture factory in eastern Zhejiang province went undetected for hours because the smoke was indistinguishable from the haze. In coastal Shandong province, most highways were closed for fear that low visibility would cause motorists to crash. And in Beijing, the local government urged residents to remain indoors and told construction sites to scale back activity. "These are emergency measures that have the same economic impact as a strike or severe weather," said Louis Kuijs, a Hong Kong-based economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland and formerly of the World Bank. "They're very painful." [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2013 ^*^]

“As air pollution continues to obscure China's cities, the cost to the nation in lost productivity and health problems is soaring. The World Bank estimates sickness and early death sapped China of $100 billion in 2009, or just under 3 percent of gross domestic product. China is now home to seven of the 10 most-polluted cities in the world, according to a report by the Asian Development Bank and Beijing's Tsinghua University. A study by Greenpeace and Peking University's School of Public Health put the cost of healthcare to treat pollution-related ailments in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xian at more than $1 billion last year. ^*^

“China's economy has grown 30-fold since 1989, becoming the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the process. China has also emerged as the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels. The government aims to have renewable energy account for 9.5 percent of all power consumption by 2015. Such is the contradictory nature of China's environmental policy. Plastic shopping bags are being phased out, solar water heaters abound and the country's northern provinces are planting 1.5 million square miles of new trees called the Green Wall of China.At the same time, China remains highly dependent on coal to fuel its power plants. The dirty fossil fuel accounts for about 70 percent of China's energy production. Compounding the problem is the nation's new love affair with the automobile. Nearly 20 million vehicles were sold here last year, more than anywhere else in the world. ^*^

Air Pollution Threatens the Chinese Government’s Right to Rule

Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in the, Beijing’s horrific smog has much more important unintended consequences. In seeking to legitimate its rule, the Communist Party insists that under its watch, especially in recent economic boom times, life in Chinese cities has gotten steadily better in every way. This development-equals-progress narrative has been losing purchase thanks not just to worries about air pollution, but also tainted food scandals, the most famous of which involved milk powder laced with melamine, and a concern about chemical plants spewing toxic run-off into waterways, which has inspired an uptick in not-in-my-backyard protests across China. [Source: Jeffrey Wasserstrom,, January 17, 2013 >~<]

The declining power of this particular legitimating story matters a great deal, since skepticism has grown about other tales dear to the party. Since the Mao era, for example, the Communist Party has based its legitimacy in part on the idea that its leaders are far less corrupt and much more committed to equalizing wealth than their Nationalist Party predecessors. These ideas have become laughable to many after a string of corruption and nepotism scandals and a sharp increase in the inequality separating the lifestyles of the wealthiest and poorest segments of China’s populace. >~<

One thing the party has emphasized “is that many Chinese, especially those living in cities, now enjoy a level of comfort that outstrips anything that their parents and grandparents enjoyed—indeed could dream of. Life is getting better, the party claims, and those who have not yet benefited need only wait their turn. But public-health scares and heavy smog in Beijing and others places—believe it or not, at times other cities have even darker skies than the capital—are leaving some people skeptical about whether things are really getting better simply because they can now buy things at a mall. >~<

“Is life really improving, they ask each other in private conversations, in online forums, and at protest rallies, if doing ordinary things like drinking milk and playing outside can cause your child to get sick? How can we trust a government, they wonder, that tries to hide the truth about obvious dangers, by censoring reports of doctored food and drink and until very recently used the word fog to describe the noxious substance that made it hard to see even nearby skyscrapers? In most places, a smog crisis is an environmental danger and, on some days, a public health emergency. In China, the grey skies overhead strike at the very legitimacy of the country’s ruling party. >~<

Smog Makes Beijing's Massive Surveillance Network Practically Useless

Mike Riggs wrote on The Atlantic online, “Beijing's surveillance network, one of the most extensive and invasive in the world, has been compromised by an unexpected foe: smog. The South China Morning Post reports that intense pollution in Beijing has reduced visibility to such an extent that "no surveillance camera can see through the thick layers of particles." The problem is so serious that National Natural Science Foundation of China has commissioned two groups, one made up of civilians and the other military, to spend four years researching surveillance technology that can see through smog. A contingency solution? Radar. It might cause health problems, but it could penetrate smog particles that "are so many and so solid, they block light almost as effectively as a brick wall." [Source: Mike Riggs, The Atlantic online, November 5, 2013 <:>]

“While the inability to use surveillance cameras could have an impact on crime control, it's also a temporary boon to China's civil liberties advocates and other dissidents. Since launching its "Skynet" surveillance program in 2005, China has bedecked the country with 20 to 30 million security cameras, placing them in taxi cabs, along streets, and inside classrooms, movie theaters, and private buildings. While private parties also buy and use surveillance systems, the Chinese government makes 70 percent of surveillance system purchases. <:>

China's obsession with surveilling every corner of the country led it to spend $16 billion on video surveillance between 2009-2011. With more than 800,000 of those cameras in Beijing, that city now surpasses London as the most surveilled metropolis on the planet. <:>

Smog Concerns Boost Sales of Air Purifiers in China

Shi Jing wrote in the China Daily, “Online sales of air purifiers are soaring as smog continues to take its toll on air quality. Sales of purifiers at, a leading e-commerce company, rose by about 70 percent month-on-month, according to Chen Gongjing, the company's marketing manager."As the yellow alert for smog was issued late on Tuesday morning in Beijing, it will take the market some while to react," Chen said. "There was a huge increase in sales and searches for air purifiers on our website, but not as high as the last time heavy smog swept large parts of central and eastern parts of the country, in the middle of this month." [Source: Shi Jing, China Daily, January 30, 2013 >>>]

The page view for air purifiers on leading e-commerce company reached 340 in Beijing on Tuesday, three times the number for an average day, said Gome spokesman Peng Liang. Peng said the seven-day Spring Festival holiday will not seriously affect deliveries. For most first-tier cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, delivery of most products, including air purifiers, will not be affected because there are sufficient supplies. >>>

According to statistics provided by Taobao, a major online shopping website, its search rate for air purifiers this week is down 21.3 percent on levels recorded seven days ago. But the number has risen by 293.7 percent year-on-year. Since the smog started to spread in most parts of the country in mid-January, sales of air purifiers on, another major online shopping site, have grown by 600 percent on average. Sales of air purifiers have been more than 600 million yuan ($96.3 million) since the start of this year, the company said. >>>

Michiyo Nakamoto wrote in the Financial Times, “Even as Japanese officials wring their hands about the harmful effects of China’s air pollution drifting over to Japan, Japanese white goods manufacturers are finding the problem has a welcome silver lining. Sales of air purifiers made by Daikin, Panasonic and Sharp have shot up in China amid mounting concerns about air pollution over the past few months.Sharp said sales of its air purifiers in China tripled last month compared with a year earlier, while Panasonic sold more than twice as many air purifiers in China in January. Daikin, a leading maker of air-conditioners, also saw sales of its air purifiers in China rise 3.6 times year on year in January. [Source: Michiyo Nakamoto, Financial Times, February 15, 2013 =/=]

“We believe the impact of the air pollution problem in China on sales of our air purifiers is huge. We expect sales to continue increasing until May or June,” said a Panasonic representative. The group is ramping up production by 50 per cent. Demand for air purifiers made by Japanese manufacturers had already been on the rise in China, due to increasing awareness of health and environmental issues, a Sharp representative said. While a boycott of Japanese products due to a dispute over a chain of islands hurt sales of large ticket items made by Japanese manufacturers, from cars to TVs, Chinese consumers apparently retained their faith in the quality of Japanese air purifiers. =/=

“In 2012, sales of Sharp’s air purifiers doubled from the level a year ago, Sharp said. Sharp’s air purifiers have received certification from a Chinese-government linked organisation that they filter out 99.5 per cent of PM2.5, the small particulate matter that is at the centre of the pollution scare. Air purifiers are a key product for Sharp in China, comprising 30 per cent of the group’s white goods sales in that market, Sharp said. =/=

Chinese Urbanites Flee Smog

Reporting from Dali, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, A typical morning for Lin Liya, a native of Shanghai transplanted to this ancient town in southwest China, goes like this: See her 3-year-old son off to school near the mountains; go for a half-hour run on the shores of Erhai Lake; and browse the local market for fresh vegetables and meat. She finished her run one morning beneath cloudless blue skies and sat down with a visitor from Beijing in the lakeside boutique hotel started by her and her husband. “I think luxury is sunshine, good air and good water,” she said. “But in the big city, you can’t get those things.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 22, 2013 ^+^]

“More than two years ago, Ms. Lin, 34, and her husband gave up comfortable careers in the booming southern city of Guangzhou — she at a Norwegian risk management company, he at an advertising firm that he had founded — to join the growing number of urbanites who have decamped to rural China. One resident here calls them “environmental refugees” or “environmental immigrants.” ^+^

“At a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese, many poor farmers, are leaving their country homesteads to find work and tap into the energy of China’s dynamic cities, a small number of urban dwellers have decided to make a reverse migration. Their change in lifestyle speaks volumes about anxieties over pollution, traffic, living costs, property values and the general stress found in China’s biggest coastal metropolises. ^+^

“The urban refugees come from all walks of life — businesspeople and artists, teachers and chefs — though there is no reliable estimate of their numbers. They have staked out greener lives in small enclaves, from central Anhui Province to remote Tibet. Many are Chinese bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, and they say that besides escaping pollution and filth, they want to be unshackled from the material drives of the cities — what Ms. Lin derided as a focus on “what you’re wearing, where you’re eating, comparing yourself with others.” ^+^

Expats Flee Beijing as Air Pollution Worsens

Don Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “After nearly two decades in Beijing, David Wolf knew it was time for a change when his 11-year-old son, Aaron, somberly asked him, "Dad, when you were growing up, did you ever have PE outdoors?"Wolf had grown up in smog-choked Los Angeles in the 1970s, but even that wasn't nearly as bad as Beijing today. His son, like many young students in the city, has been kept inside for months, with the luckier children getting the chance to exercise under huge air-filtered domes that their international schools have built. Later this month, when school lets out, Aaron and his mother will move to Southern California for good, and Wolf begins a new way of doing his consulting work, splitting his time between Beijing and their new home at Channel Islands Harbor. "I want them to leave before they hate this place," Wolf, 49, said. [Source: Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2013 =+=]

“No one knows how many have fled or made concrete plans to leave, but expats who have been in China's capital a while seem to know at least a person or two who are getting out, and many more who are talking about it. So far it has been a trickle rather than an exodus. With China's economy still growing much faster than other major economies — and Beijing in many ways at the center of it all — it isn't easy for people, especially executives, to walk away from the opportunities here. =+=

Residents of China "know there are issues of food quality, air quality, even water and rice quality. This is a given," said Simon Wan, the global head of Cornerstone International Group, a major executive search firm based in Shanghai. "They are taking all kinds of protection," such as wearing surgical masks and buying air filtration equipment. Still, China's poor air is becoming an increasing economic concern, with sickness and stay-indoors alerts cutting into productivity and profits. Given a choice, senior managers are asking to work in Shanghai rather than Beijing, in part because of the difference in air quality. =+=

Groups like the American and European chambers here have raised public concerns, and with many Chinese citizens increasingly vocal about pollution and health worries, "We are not talking about companies that can be easily pushed around," said Christian Murck, president of the Beijing Chamber of Commerce, referring to giant state-owned enterprises that dominate the economy and are politically well connected. Murck, 70, himself is leaving Beijing this summer, returning to New York after 17 years in mainland China. He says it wasn't because of the pollution, although he recalled one winter day when the fine particulate matter in the air in central Beijing — the so-called PM 2.5 measure — surpassed 700 micrograms per cubic meter, far into the hazardous zone. That same day, he said, the PM 2.5 reading was 19 in New York City. "I thought to myself, 'Well, one more reason to go to New York,'" he said. =+=

Calvin Tchiang of the Bay Area and his wife, Melody, who was raised in Taiwan and Los Angeles, moved to Beijing several years ago. Fluent in Chinese, the couple seemed to have everything going for their budding careers. Calvin worked for an investment company developing Chinese partners interested in biotech; Melody had a job as a translator. But life in Beijing began to change about a year ago when they had a baby, Xavier, and the pollution became intolerable. The Tchiangs put three air purifiers in their apartment, one for each room. The machines whirred 24 hours a day. When the PM 2.5 dropped under triple digits, which was rare, they opened the windows and took their baby outside.When they went out, though, the couple wore similar Darth Vader-like respirators, Calvin in black and Melody in red. Melody found herself checking the PM 2.5 reading several times a day. Whenever it hit 300, she would not go out at all. "There were instances when I became a recluse," Melody said. The Tchiangs returned to the U.S. in April, settling near Cincinnati. =+=

Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: Charlie Custer, Beijing-based editor-in-chief of the respected ChinaGeeks blog, announced he and his wife were leaving for the United States, partly because of the pollution. "I like breathing," he wrote. "There's really nothing forcing me to live in Beijing. It is, in many ways, a wonderful city, and it's probably the most fascinating, exciting place I have ever lived. However, it was also killing me. "Obviously there are millions of families in Beijing, and they deal. Certainly, we could deal too. But the question I couldn't stop asking myself was, why should we?" [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 29, 2012]

Chinese Air Pollution and Global Warming

Charles W. Petit wrote in U.S. News and World Report, “In southeastern China, where haze has cut sunlight by 2 percent to 3 percent every 10 years since the 1950s, temperatures are dropping, while rising elsewhere in the country, presumably because of greenhouse gases. The changed temperature patterns have rerouted storm tracks, one recent Chinese study said. The study blamed the shift for severe floods in the nation's south in recent years, coupled with drought in the north. It ranked the new weather pattern as the greatest sustained change in China's climate in more than 1,000 years. [Source: Charles W. Petit, U.S. News and World Report, March 17, 2003 :|:]

“Some scientists also suspect that the pollution cloud could be cooling the sea surface and slowing evaporation in the far western Pacific, off Asia. The effects could ripple across half the globe to the United States, because the western Pacific is the breeding ground for El Niños, the bouts of Pacific warming that change rainfall across the Americas and beyond. All of this is enough to make Asia's brown cloud, and the sparser hazes elsewhere, into a global climate threat. Fortunately, hazes are far easier to counter than greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Clean up industry and smother the fires, and in a few weeks rain would wash the skies clean. Carbon dioxide, in contrast, lingers for centuries, and ordinary pollution controls can't touch it. :|:

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2013

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