The young boy’s chronic cough and stuffy nose began last year at the age of three. His symptoms worsened this winter, when smog across northern China surged to record levels. Now he needs his sinuses cleared every night with saltwater piped through a machine’s tubes.
The boy’s mother, Zhang Zixuan, said she almost never lets him go outside, and when she does she usually makes him wear a face mask. The difference between Britain, where she once studied, and China is “heaven and hell,” she said.
Levels of deadly pollutants up to 40 times the recommended exposure limit in Beijing and other cities have struck fear into parents and led them to take steps that are radically altering the nature of urban life for their children.
Parents are confining sons and daughters to their homes, even if it means keeping them away from friends. Schools are canceling outdoor activities and field trips. Parents with means are choosing schools based on air-filtration systems, and some international schools have built gigantic, futuristic-looking domes over sports fields to ensure healthy breathing.
“I hope in the future we’ll move to a foreign country,” Zhang, a lawyer, said as her ailing son, Wu Xiaotian, played on a mat in their apartment, near a new air purifier. “Otherwise we’ll choke to death.”
She is not alone in looking to leave. Some middle and upper-class Chinese parents and expatriates have already begun leaving China, a trend that executives say could result in a huge loss of talent and experience. There are also reports of foreign parents turning down prestigious jobs or negotiating for hardship pay from their employers, citing the pollution.
There are no statistics for the flight, and many people are still eager to come work in Beijing, but talk of leaving is gaining urgency around the capital and on Chinese microblogs and parenting forums. Chinese are also discussing holidays to what they call the “clean-air destinations” of Tibet, Hainan Island and Fujian Province.
“I’ve been here for six years and I’ve never seen anxiety levels the way they are now,” said Richard Saint Cyr, a new father and a family health doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, whose patients are half Chinese and half foreigners. “Even for me, I’ve never been as anxious as I am now. It has been extraordinarily bad.”
“Many mothers, especially, have been second-guessing their living in Beijing. I think many mothers are fed up with keeping their children inside,” he added.
Few developments have eroded trust in the Chinese Communist Party as quickly as the realization that the leaders have failed to rein in threats to children’s health and safety. There was national outrage in 2008 when more than 5,000 children were killed when their schools collapsed in an earthquake and hundreds of thousands were sickened in a tainted milk formula scandal. Officials tried to suppress angry parents, sometimes by force or with payoffs.
But the fury over air pollution is much more widespread and is just beginning to gain momentum.
“I don’t trust the pollution measurements of the Beijing government,” said Zhang’s father, Zhang Xiaochun, a retired newspaper administrator.
Scientific studies justify fears of long-term damage to children and fetuses. A study published by The New England Journal of Medicine showed that children exposed to high levels of air pollution can suffer permanent lung damage. The research was done in the 1990s in Los Angeles, where levels of pollution were much lower than those in Chinese cities today.