Earlier this year I spent a semester studying Chinese at a university in Chengdu, South West China. The key ‘attraction’ of our university was the 操场, “sports ground,” an artificial running track surrounded on all four sides by towering apartment blocks.
Myself and handful of other foreigners would often sit on the dusty grandstand in the evening, sip a Tsing Tao and watch the students shuffle by. All ran or walked in the same direction. Some walked alone, lost in their ear phones. Some gossiped in groups, others jogged.
As the evenings by the sports ground added up, we began to see patterns. There was the lady who would jog every night after sunset in her best dress and high heels, always at the same time, always alone; There was the woman in jeans who walked with such forced and determined stride she looked like she was set to conquer a mountain or spearhead a revolution; There were Yi people, an ethnic minority, who gathered around a small CD player at the edge of the track and danced awkwardly to folk music from home.
Most days the smog was so bad the apartment blocks around the track faded into an erie mist. After dark, the sky seemed lit up with a sinister red glow as the lights of the city illuminated the pollution in the air.
At 9PM under the dark, red polluted sky the students would stop their exercises, and gather into groups in the middle of the track. Marshalling themselves into packs of 50 or so, they would stand awaiting instructions. Then, one pack at a time, they would hit the track, the mass of students in the centre flowing like water into the track surrounding them.
Jogging in their packs the students would scream patriotic slogans, affirming the strength of China and declaring their loyalty to the People’s republic. After a couple of laps they would begin to file out, leaving the sports ground by the small gate in the corner. The din of the shouting would die down, and the lights would go off.
A frail man with an ancient face would shuffle along the running track towards the lonely group of white skinned foreigners on the grandstand. He’d gesture, and we’d pass him our empty beer bottles which he’d put into the plastic sack he was carrying, and then amble slowly away.
There is little grass on the sports ground. There is no blue in the sky, and although the days are hot you can seldom see the sun. The smog catches in your throat and makes your eyes water. Even if you’re young and fit you’ll be out of breath at the top of a small flight of stairs.
When I got off the plane in New Zealand, leaving China for the first time in almost half a year, the fresh air of Auckland gave me more energy than I’d had in months. The air tasted clean, and I could walk and run without tiring. Perhaps this is how long term smokers feel after they kick the habit. My family grew tired of me enthusing about the air – for the first few days it was the most distinct thing I noticed.
The air pollution in Chengdu is bad, but Beijing is worse. You may have heard about the giant TV screens which broadcast an artificial sunrise in Tiananmen Square. The real sun is too oppressed with soot and smoke to show up for work. This changed however for a few rare days in November.
During the APEC conference, the Chinese government was anxious to present a blue sky and breathable air to foreign dignitaries.
Factories closed. Cars were ordered off the streets. It worked. The smog cleared, and visiting world leaders enjoyed a Beijing that the locals barely knew. These radical measures to quick fix the smog problem damaged China’s economy, but they also worked, at least in the short term.
Often the talk we see on the news about pollution and climate change can trickle into the abstract. We know the science, we get that it’s important, but it seems too distant from our immediate reality to jolt many of us into serious action.
Sitting under the hulking apartment blocks beneath the sick red sky and watching the students circle the plastic track, tasting the poison in the air, made it all suddenly become a bit too real.