Chasing Mirages

When air is not free

by on Feb.21, 2013, under Posts

One of the biggest headlines out of China in recent weeks has been Beijing’s “airpocalypse“.   It’s heartbreaking when people can’t even take clean air for granted.  Here’s a sensationalistic report about a correlation between childhood air quality and intelligence.  Will Beijingers (and much of China) soon be plagued with a generation of even greater idiocy?

“How can the Chinese leadership allow this to happen?”  you might ask.  Air pollution in Beijing has been a huge issue since planning for the 2008 Olympics began over 10 years ago.  Why is it that air quality has only gotten worse since then?

The fundamental problem, about which I’ve repeatedly harped, is the yawning chasm between decision-makers and the people who are most affected by those decisions.

Now you may think, “How can this be when everyone breathes the same air?”  In fact, decision-makers do NOT breathe the same air as regular people.  Back in 2010, there was a huge uproar when a Chinese manufacturer of air purifiers advertised that its equipment had been installed in Zhongnanhai, the central government’s office and residential compound in Beijing (analogous to the White House and Capitol Hill).  This claim has since been repeatedly confirmed by the company.  I’ve heard anecdotally that government officials have installed similar devices in their cars, and you can bet that many have them in their homes.  This means that decision-makers can live, work and travel in Beijing while effectively insulated from the toxic air that surrounds them.

Air purifiers for everyone!!  Besides being a completely bass-ackwards response to the problem of air pollution, these machines are prohibitively expensive to the great majority of Chinese citizens.  It’s not realistic to expect the average Chinese city-dweller earning 21,810 yuan ($3,434) a year to spend 6,18015,030 yuan ($990-$2,400) on a single air purifier, much less install multiple purifiers in his/her office, home, and car.

If China hopes to build a fair, healthy, and sustainable society, it must figure out how to align the interests of its people with those of the decision-makers.

On a recent trip (last week) I was blown away by the blue skies and high visibility.  Perhaps it’s true what the Chinese say – there are places where the moon is rounder and the sun shines brighter.  Can you tell where these pictures were taken?  Please submit guesses in the comments.  There are clues everywhere.

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