Reporting live from Mars

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Reporting live from Mars

Park Sung-hoon
The author is a Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“A motorcycle passed by, but you can’t see it after a few seconds,” responded a Beijing correspondent when JTBC anchor Sohn Seok-hee asked about the air pollution in 2014. China’s fine dust is beginning to reach notorious levels. The question I got the most upon being posted in Beijing was “Will you be okay with the air quality?” But the air quality in Beijing over the past three years since I came for training hasn’t been as bad as I had expected. The Chinese government is releasing reports showing improvement each year.

But lately, concerning situations are being repeated. During China’s Two Sessions, the National People’s Congressand the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the airborne particulate matter (PM) level was around 300, covering Beijing in grey. The “Two Sessions blue,” referring to the clear sky during China’s biggest political event, is bygone.

On March 11, I climbed the Jingshan Park behind the Forbidden City. What I could see from the observatory was only the exit of the Forbidden City. Smog swallowed Beijing. Some 30 minutes later, my cellphone screen got dusty. As I wiped the handrail with a tissue, dark dust smeared onto it. I could hear nearby tourists coughing.

That day, the overall air quality index was 313. When asked about the weather, people responded that things had improved significantly, as the air quality index was as high as 500.

I didn’t know I would actually experience air quality level of 500 in a few days. On March 15, the yellow storm occurred. The national CCTV reported that it was the biggest in 10 years. The air quality composite index was 500, the maximum level, and the China National Environmental Monitoring Center measured and released the PM 10 level of 9350 from central Beijing. It is 200 times the WHO-recommended level of 50.

This is how I actually feel. All windows are closed in the office, but I can smell the dust. When I go out, I feel like sneezing anytime. I cannot believe I am wearing a mask. The scenery out of the window is yellowish, or almost reddish. I keep clear my throat but it still feels hoarse.

Even to the Chinese people who are used to fine dust seem to find it unprecedentedly serious. People wrote on social media, “Today, I am working in Mars,” “Swallowing these fine dusts, we may be the air-filtering plants,” “I opened my eyes but I looked out and feel like I’m still dreaming.”

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment cracked down businesses that operated steel and metal plants during the Two Sessions against government directive.

Are factories producing pollutants again as the Covid-19 threat is declining? For one reason or another, we can’t take our masks off.

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