Beijing's Tipping Point


The job was good, the pay reasonable. An apartment would be included. "The contract is for 12 months," the interviewer told me as we sat in the cafeteria of an office building in Beijing. I looked out the window. The buildings across the road were veiled in a grey blur of smog. That morning I had woken up with stinging eyes and a raw throat. I turned back, "is there any chance for a six-month term?" It was July 2012. Beijing’s air was barely in the news.

In the first month of 2013, a particularly virulent bout of Beijing smog became the theme of headlines, occupied copy inches, and offered up surreal image after haunting montage of thick, smothering pollution lying low across the cityscape.

According to the Economist, on the evening of 12 January, Beijing’s official air monitors measured PM2.5 levels (that is, levels of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers, which is considered particularly unhealthy as it can be absorbed into the lungs) at above 700 micrograms per cubic metre.

The US Embassy’s readings were higher: 886 micrograms. The World Health Organisation states that air with more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre is a health risk.

The daily Beijing average for January, Bloomberg reported, was 196 micrograms — worse than smoking lounges. The average for 16 US airport smoking lounges in 2012, as measured by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was around 30 micrograms less, at 166.6.

In response, a Chinese philanthropist restarted a tongue-in-cheek campaign selling canned air. Sales for air purifiers tripled, according to the The Financial Times, with popular models selling out. Face masks enjoyed brisk sales. 

This was not the first time Beijing’s air had hit the headlines. In late November 2010, the US embassy recorded "crazy bad" levels of PM2.5. Nor is Beijing alone. The Asian Development Bank says seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in China.

In my experience of train trips across much of the country, the sun rarely appeared as more than a vague, yellow suggestion behind the haze. In early 2010, when I was in the southern city of Guangzhou, it was lit like evening. My watch showed 3 o’clock, but the street lamps and car headlights were on.

What then is the effect of this bad air on the attractiveness of Beijing specifically, and China more generally, as a work destination for foreigners? Remember these are people who could easily leave, if they so wanted. The effect, much like smog itself, is pervasive and subtle, yet palpable.

"Many companies, some of our clients in fact, are having second thoughts about setting up in areas where there are hazardous levels of smog,"Adam Fairbrother, managing partner for China and Vietnam with the global executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson, told NM.

"That may mean that they move their headquarters from Beijing to a different location in China. Or it may mean that they just don’t set up in China, and they set up in Singapore or somewhere else."

Fairbrother said that over the last three months, he has spoken to five or six senior individuals who are actively looking to leave polluted areas. He also noted that an increasingly high number of Chinese executives, especially those with young children, are leaving employers for jobs outside Beijing.

Jingmai O’Connor, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says that "living (in Beijing) is like playing professional American football, it takes 15 years off your life — but it really isn’t a joke".

In 2009, research was conducted into why since the 1980s life expectancy in 51 US cities had increased by two-and-a-half years. A conclusion was reached that 15 per cent of that change was due to cleaner air. The researchers concluded that city air pollution shortens lives. Had the research been conducted in Beijing or Mexico City, the researchers said, the life expectancy impact would likely have been greater.

"As a single woman with no family, I do plan to live here longer," says O’Connor, who has been in Beijing since 2009. "If I had a family that wouldn’t be the case."

"Several of my more sensitive colleagues are already mentally packing up their bags, looking for new work. During the worst of the Airpocalypse they were bed-ridden."

Bob, a 40-year-old who works in education in Shanghai, said he has suffered smog-related illness twice in a one year period. "At the moment, at the height of the problems in Beijing, I will be sure to limit my time travelling for business to that area," he told NM.

He says that though he considers Beijing a "great city" (his favorite in China), he actively discourages friends from living there simply due to the smog: "I wouldn’t live there, and definitely wouldn’t take my family to live there."

Fairbrother and Simon Lance, regional director of recruiting firm Hays in China, both note there are no firm statistics on the issue and are wary about calling it an exodus.

"(Beijing) continues to be a top destination in China for expatriates … While some will consider relocating to other cities, many have expressed that they will remain," Lance said, adding that employer brand, career opportunities, salary and benefits, and schooling for children are other important factors.

"It’s probably a growing trend rather than an epidemic," adds Fairbrother. "It’s small numbers compared to the numbers of people that we deal with."

China still entices. O’Connor said she enjoys some of the most rewarding research opportunities in the world.

"So I stay. Bad air, no Facebook, and worse."

Jeffrey, an Australian engineer who worked for three months in Xiamen — a city in China’s south with somewhat better air conditions — said he would love to go back. So too would Tom Neale, a 24-year-old project officer in Australia. Neale lived in the country for a year and has studied Mandarin.

Though the air may not dissuade them from being pulled in, they both admit it may eventually push them away.

Jeffrey said his smog time limit would be one to two years. With children, that would drop to zero. Neale would also consider a shortened stint: "Ultimately, I cannot work if my health will be compromised."

As for me, I am now based in Taiwan. The pay is worse. No accommodation is provided. But my eyes don’t sting and my throat isn’t heavy.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.