Beijing Pollution, Construction and Migration

Picture of street food.

Cactus for sale, central Beijing.

August 2 - 10, 2014
Days 15 - 23

Things were slow-going during Katie's and my first week in Beijing. One day we got cellphones. Another day we went to Ikea and bought some dishes, furniture and other odds and ends for our apartment. Another day we went to a government office and got health checks, which were required for our long-term visas. Some of the “tests” seemed superfluous (height and weight check) and others were downright ridiculous (an “eye” exam where we had to read some of the biggest letters on the chart and a “hearing” exam where they simply shined a flashlight into our ears), but I think those tests were only done to distract us from what the government actually cared about – the blood test. Apparently, foreigners with HIV, or any other infectious blood-borne diseases, are immediately deported. While standing in long lines for several hours in a dreary government building, it occurred to me that I really was in a communist country.

On our third day we took the subway into the city. It was only then that we realized just how far from downtown Houshayu is. The Beijing metropolitan area is arranged in six concentric circles, where Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City are the “First Ring.” Just traveling from our apartment (near the Sixth Ring) to the Fifth Ring took an hour and a half. Getting to the center by train takes well over two hours. The last train of the day leaves at 10:50 p.m., so if we want to stay out later, we have to either take a taxi home, find somewhere to sleep in the city or wait until the trains start running again at 5 a.m. One good thing about the subway system is that it's constantly being expanded. By the end of the year, the line we live near will be extended by several stops, bringing the number of trains we have to take to get downtown from four to two. This should make our trips into the city much quicker.

It's amazing to think how quickly this city has grown. I met one woman who lived here in 1989. She told me that at the time, the Third Ring was the outskirts. Taxi drivers refused to go beyond it. Wolves were occasionally spotted in the nearby forests. Even Katie's Beijing guidebook, which was published nine years ago, shows the Fourth Ring as the edge of the city, and it only lists a couple of the central subway lines. Now, the Third Ring is downtown. Thirty-story highrises encompass it, and far beyond. The core of the city ends at the Fifth Ring, but a large population (including Katie and me) has spilled beyond even its reaches.

I'm likely witnessing the tail end of the largest rural-urban migration in human history. According to some estimates, since 1979 over 440 million people in China have left small villages, often where their families have lived for centuries, for a chance at the “good life” in the big cities. I say “tail end” because I don't think this migration can continue much longer. Beijing, at least, is becoming too expensive for unskilled laborers. To cut costs, factories are starting to move out of the city. On top of that, the government has finally started to recognize the pollution problem; it has forcibly moved some factories to less-populated areas. It would have been fascinating to see Beijing two decades ago and compare it with today, but I still think I'm here at an important period of rapid modernization. (Not that I'm an expert – this is just stuff I've been reading and hearing about since moving here.)

Picture of construction.

Beijing construction.

Beijing's extreme air pollution has come up in almost every conversation I have had here. During our first week the sky was constantly smoggy. Then one day it rained, and for the next few days, we experienced beautiful blue skies. Ever since then, I've always welcomed rain, knowing that it would give a respite of a day or two from the pollution. People often mention the Air Pollution Index, an official measurement of pollution levels. An index of 50 or lower is considered safe; 300 is hazardous – everyone is advised to stay indoors. Lately Beijing's index has hovered around 100, higher than I had ever experienced in Madison, WI, but still not particularly dangerous for healthy people. In theory, the scale maxes out at 500, but two winters ago, the air quality got so bad, it became impossible to accurately measure. Unofficially, the highest level recorded in Beijing was 755, on January 12, 2013. People who were living here at the time have told me that if you were sitting on a park bench, you could barely even see the other side of the bench. Not that anyone would willingly spend time outside in those conditions. That winter most teachers at Katie's school got bronchitis, and a few got pneumonia. Even though the index is relatively low right now, I've almost constantly had a cough since moving to Beijing. With the aforementioned relocation of some factories, maybe the pollution won't ever break the scale again, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

(The numbers I have quoted are based on the US government's measurements. The Chinese government uses a different methodology to measure pollution. The article I link to below has more info on this discrepancy.)

Construction is everywhere in Beijing, including right outside of my bedroom window. One day the dirt lawn in front of our apartment was sodded. Another day the workers brought in trees and shrubbery. The main courtyard was cemented, then bricked. The result looks really nice.

The construction workers on campus have been the subject of many discussions. It was difficult to sleep in our cozy, air-conditioned apartments, knowing that the workers were just outside, toiling from dawn till dusk, cooking eggs for dinner on an electric wok and sleeping under a tarp in August's extreme heat and humidity. One day, while Katie and I were walking home, the workers invited us to share their dinner, an act of generosity we couldn't possibly comprehend, let alone accept. We wanted to throw them a party, or do something to show our gratitude for their hard work, but we were told that this would go against Chinese culture, and could even be construed as insulting. These guys had a job to do, and they were doing it well. They didn't need anything from us, or so the logic went.

Picture of Rome Lake Restaurant.

A nice restaurant on Rome Lake, in Houshayu.

Pollution notwithstanding, I'm really enjoying my stay in Beijing. I love walking around this city – everything I see here fascinates me. I've got a few blog ideas about specific places, so stay tuned.

Houshayu may be far from the city center, but it still has everything I need for day-to-day existence. There are multiple fruit and vegetable stands within walking distance of the school. There's even a lake in our backyard, with several nice restaurants along the shore. There's also a Wu-Mart (Wal-Mart knockoff), McDonald's, Burger King and Starbucks for close-to-home comfort (although a small cup of regular coffee at Starbucks costs $3). The school has been challenging for Katie, but overall I think she's enjoying her new job. We picked a really great place to spend the next two years.

More photos from Beijing

External Resources:
University of Washington study on urban migration in China
Video about factories moving out of Beijing
Differences in pollution reporting: China vs USA

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