Reporter’s Notebook: The “China Dream” Smothered by Smog

There’s an ongoing joke in China that both captures the long standing competitive nature between Beijing and Shanghai while tying it neatly with the country’s number one preoccupation: pollution. “In Beijing you just need to open your window, inhale and you’ll get the equivalent of having smoked three cigarettes,” a Beijing guest boasted at a dinner party, to which his Shanghai host responded, “Oh, that’s nothing: Here in Shanghai we turn on the hot water faucet and we get pig soup.”

Guests roar with laughter as both scenarios have become too real, if not too painful to take seriously. The Shanghai Daily kept count of the rising number of dead pigs floating down the Huangpu as if tracking numbers on the stock exchange. At last count the number surpassed 13,000.

The pigs died of virus but upriver farmers, instead of burning or burying the carcasses, opted to toss them in the water to avoid a state probe that could force them to cull the rest of their stock. Instead, they hope to sell it off quickly, public safety be damned.

In Beijing the gray smog continued to shroud the cityscape and many a tourist new to the city mistook the sun for the moon in the morning. At a recent writers’ conference the conversation moved quickly from politics to pollution — what it would be like to raise your child indoors full time and what the best brand of air purifier is on the market. A billionaire had sent gifts of oxygen tanks to politicians and sold them in downtown Beijing as a stunt.

Xi Jinping was elected president of China in mid-March and his speech was titled: “The Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation.”

“The Chinese Dream, after all, is the dream of the people. We must realize it by depending on the people. We must constantly bring benefits to the people,” Xi said. Pigs in rivers and smog that shrouds the Forbidden City went unmentioned. Prosperity remained the key theme, much as it has been since Deng Xiaoping led China out of the Cold War by declaring: “to get rich quick is glorious.”

But the Chinese Dream of 2013 has run smack into London’s great smog of 1952, where people literally dropped dead from the soot in the air, and tens of thousands came down with lung infections. Smog pollution in Beijing reached its highest concentration in March, shocking even blasé locals. So alarming was the dark shroud that blocked city views that expats began leaving, no matter the good jobs and high incomes to be had.

After five years in Beijing, an American couple with a new baby is grappling with the health impacts of pollution. “We’re doing pretty well professionally,” the wife said, “but now we have to seriously rethink our strategy.” Their baby rarely leaves the house, where an air purifier is on round-the-clock. “If we stay we might have to equip her with an oxygen mask when we take her outside,” the husband remarked. “There’s probably a market for that kind of oxygen mask for children of the wealthy…You just don’t see kids playing outside in Beijing.”

Those who don’t have the option to leave China like the expat couple take to the Internet to complain and speculate.

“Bureaucrats and corrupt officials are living the dream but for most people, it’s become a nightmare,” wrote one blogger on Weibo. “As vague as Xi’s ‘dream’ might be, it has prompted mass public speculation, expectation and has even become the butt of political jokes,” noted the South China Morning Post. It quoted a blogger named Longyi Sky Master, who wrote: “We’re 100 years early in realizing the Chinese dream! We now have the biggest, most beautiful and luxurious government offices in the world! Right now, what else could the Chinese people be dreaming of?”

Along with jokes and cynicism are popular memes: photo-shopped images of Chairman Mao’s portrait, the one that hangs on the wall of Tiananmen Square. One shows Mao’s comb blown asunder by the wind and the other shows him wearing a mask due to air pollution. It went viral on Weibo until it was censored but it was already too late. People text each other these images as a way of saying, ironically, “Welcome to Beijing,” or cryptically: “I’m not going out today for obvious reasons.” A picture in this case is worth 10,000 words.

Not only does the Chinese Dream of 2013 have to contend with the London Smog of 1952, it also needs to take a look at America’s gilded age. As China’s top 1 percent reach the highest stratosphere of wealth — with fleets of Ferraris and Mercedez Benzes and armies of servants and mansions around the world – these industrialists, reminiscent of America’s robber barons of yore, exert power and control over natural resources, buy government influence, pay extremely low wages and break any effort of workers to organize.

“The Chinese have a saying, once you climbed on the tiger’s back it’s very difficult to get back down,” a Chinese journalist in Shanghai commented in a private gathering. “We have no choice now but to keep growing. But how long can we stay on the tiger’s back?” Capitalism is roaring indeed in the largest nation on earth, and the authorities have no choice but to keep on pushing for greater wealth. As the journalist noted, “Once you fall, once the market falters, you’ll be eaten alive.”

In early 2011 the government erected a 31-foot bronze statue of Confucius near Tiananmen Square. The statue disappeared within 4 months time. It was yet another of China’ futile efforts to bring back traditional Chinese values, ones that Mao himself helped destroy. “Eager to fill the vacuum left by the fading of Maoist ideology, the party in recent years has been championing Confucianism as a national code of conduct, with special emphasis on tenets like ethical behavior, respect for the elderly, social harmony and obedience to authority,” The New York Times reported.

But the problem with Confucianism is that it also raises the specter of the mandate of heaven. When a ruler loses his way, falling prey to corruption and immorality, he loses heaven’s mandate and the right to rule. In ancient times earthquakes, famines or floods were seen as inevitable signs that the mandate had been withdrawn. It’s no wonder the old sage had to go.

Which leaves very little left for the Chinese Dream, itself derivative of President Herbert Hoover’s Great American Dream speech in 1928 promising a “chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Luckily Hoover didn’t have to deal with a failing ecosystem and manmade pollution on a planetary scale.

Besides, the problem with the promise of wealth is that it is not really an ideology. Collective desire, after all, is not the same as collective strength; more often than not it leads to selfishness. Everyone wants a new car, which produces traffic jams and the burning of low-grade gasoline that leads to more smog; everyone wants air purifiers but it leads to more coal burning and facemasks, lung cancer and birth defects. The China Dream lacks at its core a larger purpose for the nation beyond consumerism.

The Chinese journalist in Shanghai who went to graduate school in the US said he is still committed to China. But he is “watching the government’s actions very closely.” There have been efforts to clean up, to deal with pollution and wrong doers, he said, “but the problem is huge. We have 1.3 billion people, not like in the US where there’s only 300 million with about the same landmass.”

Every night in his new home in the suburb, he watches for violators. In the old days people burned trash and no one stopped them, he said. “Now there’s a hot line. I called a few times when they burned trash with lots of plastic in it. Now the authorities show up.”

He loves his country but leaving is an option. “It depends on whether China is serious about clean up… whether it’s willing to deal with pollution while it still can.”