With its parks, centuries-old palaces, history and culture, Beijing should be one of the more pleasant capitals of the world. Instead, it is considered among the worst to live in because of chronic air pollution.
Lung cancer rates are rising among the 20 million residents of China’s capital, health officials say. For many multinational companies, Beijing is considered a hardship posting and, despite the extra allowances that classification brings, some executives are leaving.
On some days, Beijing is enveloped in a brownish-grey smog, so thick it gets indoors, stings the eyes and darkens the sky in the middle of the day.
Smoke from factories and heating plants, winds blowing in from the Gobi Desert and fumes from millions of vehicles can combine to blanket the city in this pungent shroud for days. English-speaking residents sometimes call the city “Greyjing” or “Beige-jing.”
Some foreigners plan their daily events around the US embassy’s Twitter feed on Beijing’s air quality (https://twitter.com/beijingair), which has hourly posts.
“On a bad day, you’re going to change your plans,” said American Chauvon Venick, who moved to Beijing from Los Angeles with her lawyer husband and young daughter earlier this year. “You wake up, look outside and it’s a great day, you skip whatever you’re going to do and go outside to enjoy it. If it’s a really bad day, maybe we’ll go and do something inside.”
“I’m not going to have her out and about,” Venick said, referring to her daughter.
While the embassy’s air quality index has been consistently in the “unhealthy” range of about 170 in the past week, the winter months can be especially bad as residents crank up the heating.
One day in early December, Beijing’s smog was so severe it forced the main airport to shut for several hours, and the US embassy’s index reached its ceiling with a reading of 500, meaning the air was hazardous to human health.
Last year, the state-run China Daily quoted a Beijing health official as saying the lung cancer rate in the city had increased by 60 percent during the past decade, even though the smoking rate during the period had not seen an apparent rise.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability index this year ranked Beijing’s pollution at 4.5, with 5 being the worst. Out of 70 cities surveyed, the only ones rated worse were Mumbai, New Delhi, Karachi, Dakar, Dhaka and Cairo.
Beijing has a lot going for it, aside from being the capital of the world’s second-largest economy and home to UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Summer Palace and world-famous cuisine.
However, the pollution has reached such levels that it can be hard to convince foreign executives to move to the city.
“We can’t get people to move here. Pollution is a big worry, especially if you have children,” said a Beijing-based executive for a large Western financial services firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Beijing is considered a hardship posting nobody wants.”
Those taking advantage include companies that make air purifiers, which report booming business and count big foreign firms among their clients.
“Sales last year were three times the average of what we had seen in previous years,” said Zheng Hui, a sales consultant for Swiss company IQ Air, which entered the Chinese market more than five years ago.
Chinese authorities made an all-out effort to improve air quality during the 2008 Summer Olympics, curtailing vehicle movements and relocating outdated, polluting factories.