The Chinese Can’t Catch Their Breath

Chinese yearning to breathe experiment with canned mountain air, makeshift purifiers, and bans on barbecues—to no avail.

Jianan Yu/Reuters

How much is a breath of fresh air worth? In March, delegates from all over China gathered in Beijing for the annual meeting of the National People's Congress. President Xi Jinping joked that the air in Guizhou, a southwestern province, was so pure that it should be put up for sale. The idea, apparently, stuck. Days later, the province's tourism bureau announced that canned air would soon be offered to visitors as souvenirs.

The officials of Guizhou are not the only ones to take advantage of smog-riddled northern skies. Chen Guangbiao, an oddball millionaire and philanthropist, took inspiration from a Japanese fad and made a ripple in the Chinese media in 2012 when he announced plans to sell canned air obtained from Taiwan and Jiangxi province's Jinggang Mountain. The cans were printed with his smiling visage and the words “good person.” Each can was sold for ¥4. That's about $0.60 for three whiffs.

More recently, in late March, a marketing campaign was hatched in Zhengzhou, the 10th-most polluted city in China, in 2013, according to Greenpeace. The campaign offered breaths of fresh mountain air to residents of the city, who lined up for their turns to strap on oxygen masks and suck in the contents of sealed blue bags. Additionally, 2,000 cans of air were packed on Laojun Mountain and handed out as a gimmick to boost tourism to the already popular location. That air was free, but it was gone in 20 minutes.

The smog in northern China has been linked to lowered life expectancy, increased instances of asthma, and has severely tarnished the image of the nation's capital. Expat workers think twice before moving their families to Beijing, and might decide to leave their families in their home countries to go it alone, or even avoid the city altogether. Locals, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of escaping the airpocalypse. Instead, they wear face masks with varying degrees of reliability. Adoption of the accessory has even spawned its own fashion subculture.

Effective air purifiers for home or office use are costly, often running over $1,100. Even though sales have increased dramatically as smog is becoming the norm, they represent a significant investment. In response, a group of American expats is traveling the country to share an impromptu hack: HEPA filters attached to basic standing fans. It is lo-fi and imperfect, but cheap and “significantly better than nothing,” as one adopter in Shanghai said.

Some elements among the Beijing authorities think that banning outdoor grilling is part of the solution. A new policy states that those who violate the ban must pay a fine of ¥20,000, or nearly $3,200, an amount that most vendors who operate street-side food stalls cannot afford. The authorities claim that this move is one of the measures that will curb the persistent smog that plagues the capital. Last year, a similar ban on outdoor grills with a lower fine was enforced, and 500 units were destroyed during the crackdown, resulting in a brief boom in business for grill fabricators, eye rolling and the tidal susurrus of hungry pedestrians. Within days, grilled lamb skewers spiced with cumin and chili were back on the street.

The new ban took effect on May 1. (On that same day, it should be noted, a traffic jam stretching 55 kilometers was seen trickling into Beijing, thousands upon thousands of idling vehicles spewing exhaust.) Before May Day, state-run online news providers rolled out reports with street interviews in which Beijing consumers praised the ban, saying it will greatly improve the air quality of residential neighborhoods and that there is strong civic support for the initiative. However, even law enforcement acknowledged that it is likely customers and businesses will push back when enforcement begins in earnest, making implementation of the new prohibition difficult.

But where do air pollutants in northern China, in particular Beijing, originate? An infographic released by Sohu Business points to the obvious culprits: industrial emissions, coal, and vehicular exhaust. China is the undisputed factory of the world, and produces about half of the global cement, steel, and iron. Heavy environmental costs are a sure consequence. Additionally, there is the eternal construction that takes place in first- and second-tier cities that blows wafts of dust into the air. The building crane, as the saying goes, is the unofficial national bird.

During Michelle Obama’s visit to China in March, the skies cleared up. Netizens pointed out the coincidence that her presence was paired with blue skies, and questioned whether the heavy industry factories that dotted Beijing's surrounding districts received instructions to draw down operations during the weeks prior to her arrival. That is unlikely, as countless man-hours and over $15 billion were spent before the 2008 Beijing Olympics to tackle the issue of declining air quality.

So, again, how much is a breath of fresh air worth? Beijing artist Liang Kegang might have the answer. In March, he traveled to France and filled a small jar with Provençal air. The vessel, sealed and signed, was put up for auction before a small circle of artists and collectors when he returned to Beijing. In an interview, Liang said, “Air should be the most valueless commodity, free to breathe for any vagrant or beggar.” The winning bid was ¥5,250, or $840.