Living a year in the Beijing pollution – this is my story

China is a beautiful country. When you type in “China travel” or similar keywords into Google or other search engines, pictures of beautiful lakes and charming cities will pop up. And a lot of China is like that. But we can also conclude that the country got a dark side. Despite being one of the most iconic capitals in the world, Beijing has gotten a reputation of being unhealthy, dirty and filled with air pollution.

Media coverage

Newspapers around the world are always eager to publisher articles with headlines such as:

“Beijing still one of worst polluted cities in China despite smog crackdown”

Screenshot, SCMP.com.

“Chinese Capital Under Orange Alert For Air Pollution”

Screenshot, NDTV.com.

 

“Beijing smog Pollution reaches hazardous levels in Chinas capital – in Pictures”

Screenshot, Telegraph.co.uk.

…and a lot more. If you are reading online newspapers, there is a high chance that you have seen articles like this. Despite the fact that there are loads of cities in the world with significantly higher pollution level than China (just look at this list), Beijing is always the example that the newspapers tend to write about. That is not a coincidence. Not only is the city filled with amazing scenery/tourist spots (The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Zhongshan Park, etc.). It is also the home of 30 million people that is forced to breath in heavily polluted air now and then.

My year in Beijing


So I moved to Beijing for a year. It was a part of my MBA where I went to class with 15 Chinese and 15 European studies – a study program where you learn a lot about economics, innovation and culture. The Chinese culture has always fascinated me, which is also why I chose to learn the language (你好! Ni Hao!).

Anyway.

I was not exactly scared of what I had read about the pollution in Beijing before I went there. I knew that my stay would be a “short” one. After all, there are people that are 80 + years old and have lived in Beijing all their life. My initial thought was: how dangerous can this air pollution really be?

The facts – how dangerous is the Beijing air pollution?

According to a report by The World Health Organization, about 4.6 million people die from air pollution annually. That equals the population of Norway.

In China alone, around 4400 people die daily from diseases connected to bad air quality. However, the government have done a tremendous job in order to improve the air quality over the last period of time. We know for a fact that the transportation sector and commercial factories are the two main reasons for the bad air.

PM. 2.5

The way to measure air pollution is called the “PM 2.5 index scale”. Some reports also refer to the same scale as AQI (Air Quality Index). PM 2.5 is actually small particles in the air, which is very often called “pollution”. The higher density between these particles, the higher will the index scale be.

How does the pollution affect your life in Beijing?

From my perspective, it did not affect my life a lot. If that is because I did not take the pollution index “seriously” enough or did not live there so long that I would see and feel the actual consequences: I don’t know. But the daily life in Beijing is not changing at all due to the pollution.

You’re very often forced to use a masc when living in Beijing.

If you walk or drive through Beijing on a day with a PM 2.5 index of 500+, you will see that things are similar to any other day. The schools are staying open. People are going to work. Shops are not closed. The only thing that really differs is the amount of people walking or biking the streets with a mask on. This is of course a very selfish approach from a foreign student that lived in Beijing for 9 months. There are loads of people that are affected by the poor air quality every day – and a lot of them will never be able to tell their story online.

However, you can read a lot of stories online about people that have friends or relatives that lived a big part of their life in Beijing and got lung cancer. In other words, it is very important to differentiate between how air pollution influences Beijing citizens on short and long term.

Depressive winter time

A good thing to mention if you wonder if you should move to Beijing or not: the winter is definitely the worst time of the year. When the spring and autumn is filled with good, comfortable temperature and good possibilities to be outside, the winter is totally different. Cold. And a lot of pollution. A lot!

Just like most of other Northern cities in China, coal is the normal way of heating homes, offices and factories. That is a massive problem. The

Pictures

I have gathered some pictures that tell the story of how it is to live in the Beijing air pollution. All of them are taken either by myself or my classmates.

Screenshot: my own cellphone.

This is how it looks in the app when you really should not go outside. However, at this specific day I had my parents visiting the Chinese capital – and we really had to go and see The Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China is actually located about 2 hour drive away from Beijing city center, but you can still see the smog layer on this picture (taken the same day):

The Great Wall on a polluted day.

Not as idyllic as it is pictured in some travel guides.

Beijing on a bad and good day

A classmate of mine took a picture on a sunny, bright day from the student area Wudaokou. It was already announced (for some reason) that the next day would have pretty bad “weather conditions”. So he went back and took a picture at the exact same place 24 hours later.

This is how that looked like.

Good day:

Good day in Beijing. Almost no pollution.

Bad day:

Beijing on a day with bad air pollution.

I guess you can see the difference..? 🙂

What does other “China foreigners” say about the Beijing pollution?

There are loads of resources online if you want to get a second or third opinion about living in China as a foreigner. And a lot of them are active on Youtube. Being a “China Vlogger” is actually something that really has taken off over the last couple of years. I have followed some of them for a while and they are pretty open about their earnings through Youtube. So many of them have making videos about China as their main income source, which is impressive and cool.

A subject a lot often them cover is naturally the air quality in Beijing. This is something that affects them and something that they know will get a lot of views.

“Beijing versus Shanghai” – By ADVChina

This video lists up all the pros and cons of living in Shanghai versus living in Beijing. Despite the fact that Shanghai also got some days with pretty bad air pollution, it is nowhere close the Beijing level.

In the video, one of the gentleman says, quote:

“Beijing…if you go there on a polluted day, it is like hell. You can’t even explain how bad it is.”

And, of course, the Beijing pollution is seen as the main reason for why you should choose Shanghai (if you got the choice).

“How bad is the air pollution in Beijing, China?” – By Hafu Guo

What appears to be an American-Born Chinese (they are called “ABC” in China) made a video about the Beijing air pollution. Not only did he say that he struggled sometimes by living there. He was also kind enough to download and app which showed that the Beijing air was 6 times worse than in Los Angeles and 60 (!!!) times worse than in Vancouver.

He said that he has been living in China for 9 years. And he ended up going to the hospital so much due to the air pollution that the hospital staff would end up recognizing him and call him by his first name. In the video, you can hear Hafu Guo talk about throat infection among kids in Beijing.

The video is barely 3 minutes long – see for yourself.

I believe these two videos should be enough. If you want to see other “China Vloggers” talk about this same topic, you can easily go to Youtube and type in search terms such as “Air pollution Beijing” or “Beijing pollution”. There are loads of videos about this specific topic.

The big cigarette myth – is living in Beijing equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day?

A quite common sentence to hear from people outside Beijing when you tell them that you have lived there is: well, I heard living in Beijing is just like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. And by that of course, they mean that the health effect of smoking 20 cigarettes in a place with zero pollution will equal the health effect of living in Chinas capital without smoking.

After hearing that sentence over and over and over, I decided that I had to investigate if that is true.

Firstly I would like to tell you where the initial myth was created. “The Economist”, which is actually a quite decent paper with a lot of good information, posted this article in 2015. In that article, they state that living in the Beijing air pollution equals smoking not only one, but two packs of cigarettes every day. Quote: “Berkeley Earth’s scientific director, Richard Muller, says breathing Beijing’s air is the equivalent of smoking almost 40 cigarettes a day and calculates that air pollution causes 1.6m deaths a year in China or 17% of the total.”

Needless to say, that type of comment will send shockwaves through any relevant target group. And expats and foreign students in Beijing would be no exemption.

So why do I refer to this “a day in Beijing equals smoking 40 cigarettes” statement as “a myth”? Well. Doctor Richard Saint Cyr published this blog post after checking up on the arguments in the Economist. As this blog post is rather technical and not-so-easily-explained, I can just straight to his conclusion:

“That means that a daily dose of Beijing’s average air pollution is equivalent to 1/6 of one cigarette.”.

There you go.

Next time you hear anyone mention Beijing and cigarettes in the same sentence, make sure to forward them this article.

Conclusion

Disclaimer: my conclusion is, as you might already understand, based on a biased and non-scientific point of view. But I would still say that I have heard enough stories and read about the danger of air pollution to give a decent reply to what you should do.

If you either are:

– Someone over 70 years old or
– A kid below 15 years old or
– Parents to kids between 0 and 15 years old or
– Someone that struggle with asthma or similar diseases,

you should not move to Beijing. There are probably other places in the world that will suit you/your family better.

However, if you do have a completely different profile and want to live in one of the most exciting cities in the world: feel free to move to Beijing. Beijing is not about air pollution, diseases or smog. It is the heart of Chinese culture and home of a fantastic range of great “tourist” spots. You can take a walk in the old Hutong areas where time has been standing still for 100 years. Or bike down to Forbidden City and have a look into one of the most famous spots on the planet. What about hanging out with the student crowd in Wudaokou? Or see how modern and pretty Beijing can be by taking a cab to the CBD area called Sanlitun?

Beijing is fantastic – and unless you are in a vulnerable age or already got some health problems, there is no need to stay away from the city if you want to live/visit the city.

7 thoughts on “Living a year in the Beijing pollution – this is my story”

  1. I will be moving to China in about one week now. Will live there until the Winter Olympics in 2022. Do you think I need to do something special in order to deal with the pollution? Do you think the Chinese government will work hard to reduce the air pollution before and during the winter games?

    best,
    Andrew

    1. Hello Andrew, that sounds really fun. Beijing is a great city.

      I haven’t lived in Beijing since 2014, but I have heard that things have become better. However, I would strongly recommend you to:

      – Try to buy an air purifier as soon as possible.
      – Avoid being outside on the days with a PM2.5 level above 300.
      – Listen to your body. If you start to feel dizzy or get a bad throat, go see a doctor.

      In regards to what the Chinese government will do to reduce the air pollution before Olympics 2022: no idea. But they have done “weather fixes” before 😉

  2. I was a Beijing expat between 2017 and 2019. You are right: living in that city can really be described as dangerous. Walking to work was a terrifying experience, and no, im not exaggerating. You can walk around and literally taste the air pollution between your teeth.

    One thing was good about living in the Beijing air pollution though: I appreciate my hometown in Croatia much more now. We are maybe not the most developed country in the world, but we surely have better air quality, hehe

    1. Hey Marja, I totally agree with you. Good to hear that we are more people with similar experiences. 🙂

  3. As a previous student in Beijing, I totally approve what you say. During my stay I was not worried at all, but when thinking back, I think:”Some days I really should not have gone outside my door”.

    The feeling of PM 2.5 and PM 10 that just hits you in the face is so disgusting that I wish I will never get back to Beijing again. I love China. But Beijing is not for me

    1. Hello, and thanks for your comment. You are right – some days you would look out the window and really think that staying inside close to your air purifier would be a very good idea.

      Beijing is a fantastic city – and when they fix their air pollution problem, it would be even more fantastic.

  4. I lived a year in the same university. After finding out that I really loved a girl called Nati in the apartment complex I lived in, I had to stay a bit longer…

    Anyway, my life was tough due to the air pollution in Beijing. I was honestly struggling, and I am really familiar with the first youtube video you are referring to. I also ended up in the hospital a couple of times (in ONE year!!) and still believe it had everything to do with the air..

    Never moving back, but still in love with Nati from Beijing

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top