The Smog of War: China Battles Pollution
China’s environmental problems have become such an embarrassment to its leadership that the country suddenly finds itself on a war footing. On Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang, the second-ranked political leader and head of economic policy, formally declared a “war on pollution” in a speech before the annual gathering of the National People’s Congress. The reform is welcome news, but overdue — and the outlook of the strategy Li outlined is about as clear as the morning sky on your run-of-the-mill, suffocating Beijing day.
Li called for the closure of 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces, the removal of 6 million old, emissions-belching vehicles from the streets, and new guidelines for air quality improvement in seriously affected northern Chinese cities. He described the state of Beijing’s air as “nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.”
I Spent an Entire Day on the Beijing Subway
If Beijing’s subway feeds the city’s beating heart, then Line 2 is its circulatory system. Its looped route traces the path once taken by the ancient city walls, but Mao’s disdain for history saw the structure make way for subterranean tunnels and the heaving ring road directly above. A staggering 1.5 million people use the line every day, each one a tiny blood cell that helps keep the great capital alive.
My self-imposed mission is to spend an entire day on Line 2, circling central Beijing from first train to last. Part social observation and part endurance test, there is no better way to sample the cross sections of a city than to watch them change around you from the discomfort of a single subway seat. This is a people-watcher’s paradise.
Andingmen Station at dawn.
4:51 AM – There’s a palpable smog in the air as I descend into the depths of the subway. A kind voice on the PA reminds me to “stand firm and hold the handrail,” which is helpful. It’s reassuring to know that the state cares about my well-being.
5:05 AM – The doors to the first train open. “Welcome to Subway Line Teeooo” declares the automated announcer in a Chinese/American/robot accent that, over the course of the next 24 hours, will come to be my disembodied nemesis.
I take my seat in a clinically-lit car pasted with ads. Video screens above each bank of seats promote insect killer, a dating website, and some kind of cooking oil. Even the windows exist to remind people of their need to consume. As we speed between stations, lines of LCD displays inside the tunnel play yet more ads through the glass.