Jan 23, 2019 10:00 AM

Smog Drops on Employee Complaint List With Improving Air Quality

Smog and air pollution are hardly front and center in most people’s minds here in China this week, as many of us grapple with a particularly bad cold and flu season and also get ready for the long Lunar New Year holiday that starts Feb. 4. But that’s precisely the point, as China’s horrible smog problem of just a couple of years ago seems to be rapidly and thankfully quickly fading into the history books.

From an employer’s perspective this a great development, and contrasts sharply with what I described on this very same subject nearly two years ago shortly after launching this Doing Business in China column. At the same time, other concerns do seem to be moving in to take the place of smog, most notably the rapidly slowing economy that seems to be gobbling up jobs left and right, both for expats and local Chinese.

Then, of course, there’s this year’s cold and flu season, which has been unusually harsh in our own office and claimed more than half our staff as victims, myself included. But that’s a story for another day.

We’ll recount the current smog situation shortly, including the vast improvements that have occurred over the last couple of years and how we got there. But there’s also an interesting sidebar in terms of perceptions by many foreigners outside China, as many may still view the country as a land choked with smog despite all the recent improvements.

We’ll begin with my own experience here in Beijing over the last three years, which I’ll admit heavily colors my decidedly upbeat view on the subject of late. People living here in China all know that the dreaded period for smog is the wintery months starting in November and usually running through the end of January.

I moved to Beijing from Shanghai right at the start of smog season in late 2016, not really aware of what I was getting into. Shanghai’s smog was bad back then, but polluted periods rarely lasted more than a couple of days and the air quality index (AQI) seldom got above 300. For those unfamiliar with that index, anything below 100 is generally considered tolerable, and things don’t really start getting dicey until you get above 200 or 250. By the time you get to 300 and above you’re pretty much into “pea soup” territory, and things like schools and even airports start to see cancellations of classes and flights.

But returning to my own story, my first winter in Beijing was really quite horrific. We had bouts of heavy smog nearly every week during the heavy season. I recall one friend with a young son constantly bemoaning the fact that her weekend plans were ruined by heavy smog time and again due to concerns about letting children play outside in such conditions.

For me personally the worst were two periods, each lasting about a week, where heavy smog shrouded the city nonstop without any let-up. During that period I recall the only time ever having to use GPS simply to spot upcoming traffic lights while driving, because the smog was so heavy you couldn’t physically see them otherwise until you were just 30 or 40 meters away.

Change in the wind

Fast forward to the present, when we look set to make it through a second consecutive smog season without anything like those extended periods of heavy pollution I’ve just described. The central government is largely to credit, having embarked on a massive push to install more power generated by clean-burning natural gas to replace far dirtier coal that was previously China’s main power source.

There’s also been abundant strong-arming of local governments and heavy polluters like steel mills, which have been ordered to sharply control their emissions in winter, even if it means sacrificing a few percentage points of GDP growth. That effort was center stage last winter when it caused thousands of rural residents to be left out in the cold after new natural gas heating systems weren’t ready for use before the older coal-backed systems got shut down.

Whatever the reasons, the real proof is in the numbers. The latest rankings I could find from the World Health Organization (WHO), which admittedly only cover 2016, show that Indian cities had taken over the mantle from China as the world’s smoggiest with nine of the top 10 spots. The worst Chinese offender was the city of Baoding at No. 19, in the heart of the country’s heavy-industry region. Beijing and Shanghai, home to the vast majority of the country’s expats, were Nos. 56 and 248 on the list, though it should still be pointed out that China in general was quite well represented.

More recent figures from China itself showed air quality improved again last year, with the average levels of a key pollutant dropping by 9.3% in 338 cities tracked by the Ministry of Environment and Ecology.

One of my contacts who runs a consultancy with offices in Beijing and Shanghai nicely summarized the case on the ground for many employers like himself. He personally moved to Shanghai from Hong Kong in the past year, a move he said he wouldn’t have considered previously. What’s more, he added, complaints about pollution have gone way down from members of his Beijing office.

Another friend who also lives in Beijing and works for a major foreign media pointed out that while the reality on the ground has improved, perceptions of people outside China maybe be slow to catch up. She noted that her bosses are happy to perpetuate the polluted China image, requesting smog stories whenever pollution levels are particularly high. But of course they have little or no interest in running a “blue sky” story on the many days we’ve had this winter when air quality has been good or excellent.

Another contact who runs a consultancy in Shanghai expressed similar sentiment, saying that smog is still an issue, but “its relative importance has dropped.” Yet another who runs a law firm here in Beijing put it differently: “People arriving in Beijing for the first time or after a long absence express pleasant surprise at how much better air quality is than they had been led to believe or remembered,” he said.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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