Oct 10, 2014 10:29 PM

Closer Look: Playing to a Foreign Crowd on Pollution Control

(Beijing) – As the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Beijing has told all of its government departments to take six days off during the meetings from November 7 to 15. The city's elementary and middle schools will also have a break in classes.

China is a country that runs according to formality and decorum. The APEC meeting is a time for making international friends, and six days of vacation can help provide guests with convenient transportation and clean air. Moreover, there are other countries that use this same technique.

But why will elementary and high school students be given time off? Or is this a matter of humanizing the real situation: If the children aren't on break, the parents aren't on break. The whole family is unable to go out. Perhaps the purpose is to mitigate the strain of traffic from picking up children from school. This is one potential argument.

Right now, Beijing is going through a period of severe smog. From October 8 to 10, the air quality index (AQI) exceeded 300 for three continuous days, reaching "severe pollution" levels. The level of pollution poses a major risk to human health. This, compared to the APEC conference, should be more of a reason to suspend classes and keep kids indoors.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection's regulation clearly advises everyone to avoid exercising outdoors when air pollution becomes severe and states that children, the elderly, and those with health conditions should stay indoors and avoid vigorous activity.

The Beijing government says it will activate a red early warning signal if it foresees severe air pollution for at least three days in a row. During that time, it says, "Kindergarten, elementary, and high schools should suspend classes while businesses and institutions may implement a flexible work schedule."

But the warning never came, even though the air pollution index was above the severe level for more than three days in February. The city's environmental bureau explained later that its forecast had expected the air to clear sooner.

In fact, during the past several years, Beijing has been stricken several times by lasting heavy smog, but not once has it ordered elementary and high schools to close doors.

Some would argue that with Beijing's poor air quality, suspending classes every day there is smog would seriously disrupt classes. That is not true.

According to data from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, in 2013, Beijing had only 13 days of "severe pollution" (AQI exceeded 300). Among them 10 were in the first quarter of the year, including some that fell in the winter vacation. This year, severe air pollution that lasted three days or more has happened only three times.

It is quite alright to discuss whether we need to suspend classes for an international meeting. The same should be true for suspending classes on smog days.

(Rewritten by intern researcher Roma Eisenstark)

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