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Chinese Wonder If Smog Is Blackening Their Lungs Like It Is High-Speed Trains

High speed train from Shanghai to Beijing covered with dirt from smog. Collage from Weibo.

High-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing covered with dirt from smog. Collage from Weibo.

China welcomed 2017 with a thick, lasting smog, souring many people's mood for the new year. Public discontent over the severe pollution hanging over northern China for nearly two weeks has been building, and the lack of solution has led some to question the efficacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule on social media.

A particularly shocking illustration of just how bad the situation is came in the form of photographs showing high-speed trains in Beijing covered in a thick layer of grime after passing through the severe smog areas. The shots went viral and spurred hot discussion on popular Chinese platform Weibo. A selection of comments in reaction to the photos are below:

我觉得自己活不到80岁了,都能粘在车上,别提我们的肺了。我姥爷,舅母,姑父都是肺癌

I don't think I will live as long as 80. Look at the train and see what happens to our lungs. My grandpa, aunt and uncle all have lung cancer.

太可怕,吸到肺里洗不掉。

This is so terrible. [Grime on the train can be washed away] but we can't wash our lungs.

感谢党和政府,霾里营养特别丰富,富含维生素ABCDEFG

Thanks to the party and the government, smog is very nutritious with vitamins ABCDEFG.

Some domestic media outlets picked up the story and confirmed that the photos were taken on January 2 after a high-speed train traveled through Shanghai to Beijing. The railway authority also responded to the news report stating that it is not unusual to see trains covered in dirt when air quality is low.

Air pollution readings in northern Chinese cities have been many times above the World Health Organization-designated safe level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 pollutant, and the year 2017 began with red alerts in 24 cities where the levels of PM 2.5 have been above 300 for more than 72 hours.

A post from well-known Chinese film director Lu Chuan, which quotes a doctor’s remarks on the potential harmful effects of smog, has been forwarded over a thousand times:

[…]我们中国人普遍对雾霾缺乏认知,都不注意防护,如不带防雾霾口罩,不戴帽子,围脖,手套等等[…],吸入身体和肺里的雾霾永远排不出去,而且侵蚀身体和肺,一般10或20多年才发病(得肺癌,肺气肿,肺大泡,气管疾病,哮喘……,身体弱的很快得肺癌)。大夫说:尤其她看到街上有大人带着孩子出来时,她特心疼孩子,因孩子气管短,呼入肺里的雾霾比大人多,永远在里边侵蚀着肺。

[…] We Chinese people generally lack knowledge of smog and seldom take precautions, such as wearing anti-smog masks, hats, scarfs and gloves […] Smog inhaled into the body and lungs will never be released and end up hurting our health. Generally, people will start to get sick a decade or two later (lung cancer, emphysema, tracheal diseases, asthma……, those who are weaker could suffer lung cancer quickly). The doctor says whenever she sees adults bringing children outdoors, her heart hurts. As children's tracheae are shorter, they inhale more smog than adults……

Zhong Nanshan, a prominent academic, has warned that smog could cause severe diseases including cancer. Nonprofit group Berkeley Earth in California has estimated that smog has led to 1.6 million premature deaths per year in China.

Yet many comments online have labeled criticism of the smog as anti-China. Even Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s subsidiary Central Socialist College, could not bear to see such extreme patriotism and voiced out against the political labeling on Weibo:

【雾霾与政治正确】某些人的意思是,面对严重的雾霾,不能揭露雾霾,不能批评雾霾,不能对雾霾表示不满,更不能揭露雾霾严重的根源,否则你就是反华、汉奸、卖国贼了。呵呵,毫无怨言地呼吸雾霾,进而为雾霾辩护,这才是政治正确吗?这种政治正确符合人性、人道原则[…]那还叫政治正确吗?还有,不是还说一切要以人民群众满意不满意为标准吗?那么,把人民群众的不满意扣上一顶政治不正确的大帽子,那是什么意思呢

Smog and political correctness: Some people argue that when facing severe smog, we can’t disclose, can’t criticize, can’t complain, can’t expose the root causes, otherwise you are anti-China, traitors and collaborators. Is it politically correct that people should breathe in smog without making any complaints, and even defend it? If political correctness is against human nature and humanity […] can that be correct? Moreover, [the party line] states that we have to address public discontent, but now you label public discontent with such a political accusation, what's the intention behind this?

smog4

Primary school students having physical education class in a huge canopy inflated with purified air. Image from state-owned Xinhua news agency.

Meanwhile, state media continues to highlight efforts in dealing with smog. People's Daily reported that a primary school in Shijiazhuang, one of the most polluted cities in Hebei province, held physical education class for students in a huge inflatable building filled with purified air. The school's measure has attracted both positive comments and mockery:

该赞赏还是悲哀

Should we feel happy or sad about this?

今后人就跟蔬菜一样,在大棚里成长……

In the future, humans will be like vegetables, growing up under a canopy…

所以,你幸福么?

So, you are happy?

Despite the thick smog, many Chinese still chose to gather in Tiananmen Square early on New Year's Day to watch the raising national flag:

The patriotic crowd attracted sarcastic comments online that called them “human-flesh air purifiers”.

As the world's biggest carbon emitter, China depends on coal for more than 60 percent of its electricity. The government has announced its intention to reduce hazardous emissions from coal-fired power plants by 60 percent over the next five years, but its overall emissions will peak by about 2030 before starting to decline during the Paris Climate deal in 2015.

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