“One thing that fascinated and shocked me the most was the fact that even on smoggy days, people still lived their lives as usual,” said Chinese film director Jia Zhangke last week as the air outside in Beijing was a thick, soupy grey.
“When the Air Quality Index hit 200 or 300, and the air turned opaque or grey, I still saw people dancing their square dances, young people still hanging out. Everyone was doing what they would normally be doing.”
The renowned film director is known for his gritty portrayals of contemporary Chinese society, and his latest short film commissioned by Greenpeace East Asia, is no exception. Shot in Beijing and Hebei, the industrial, coal rich province that surrounds the Chinese capital, Smog Journeys is a moving story of what happens when children see more days of smog filled days, then clear blue skies.
The impact of air pollution
The film follows the lives of two families: a working class family from the coal mining province of Hebei, and another from a middle class family in Beijing.
But the story is the same all over China. In fresh data we released yesterday, over 90% of the of cities reporting pollution data last year are exceeding China’s own limits for average levels of particulates (the dangerous kind known as PM2.5) in the air.
No matter their social class, everyone breathes the same air. Air pollution is the great equalizer – and not even the wealthy elite in Beijing – with their indoor air filters and masks – can totally escape an Airpocalypse.
According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), cities in China’s Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region suffer over 100 haze days every year, with PM2.5 concentration two to four times above the World Health Organization guidelines. In 2010 in Beijing alone, PM2.5 pollution could be attributed to 2,349 deaths.
“Clean air doesn’t come to those who wait”
“I wanted to make a film that enlightens people, not frightens them,” said Jia. “The issue of smog is something that all the citizens of the country need to face, understand, and solve in the upcoming few years.”
China’s top leaders have already issued a “war against pollution” and a national plan to improve air quality in the country in late 2013.
In the short-term, Greenpeace calls for stronger enforcement of national and local action plans including shutting down the dirtiest industries, reducing local coal use, encouraging solar and wind power uptake, as well as better policy to protect vulnerable populations during heavy pollution days.
Zhang Kai lives in Beijing and is a campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia.