Beijing’s sunrise is said to be virtual. It is glimpsed on-screen during the capital’s harmful smog days. With the city’s skyscrapers shrouded in grayish-white smog, the sizable LED rising sun image continues to glow cheerily as people go about their day, paying very little attention to its significance. With the return of the airpocalypse, this doppelgänger seen in Tiananmen Square was said to be part of an advertising campaign to combat the worst smog China has seen since January 2013.
This sunscape, however, is actually a segment of a lengthy video reel promoting tourism in the Shandong province of China. It is played repeatedly throughout the year, unrelated to the air pollution levels that the world has been recently witnessing. With rapid-fire social media covering the news of Beijing’s virtual sunrise, it is not too different from the children’s game, Telephone. What the fast-breaking news did accomplish was to generate worldwide attention to this growing challenge faced by the country.
China is no stranger to hazardous smog levels. Its air quality is documented by different organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO). Even the U.S. Embassy monitors the air quality and tweets the results hourly. At its worst, China’s air pollution has hit levels 25 times more than is considered safe in the U.S. Without the relief of an N95 mask, there is a strong stench of coal, the chest become heavy, and the smog stings the eyes, keeping most people indoors. The heavy smog has affected more than 30 cities, intensified by weather patterns and an unusually cold spell.
While Greenpeace’s study points to burning coal as the main concern, Greenpeace, in conjunction with Beijing University, has conducted a study targeted at specific Chinese cities, including Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin. They have assessed that the rate residents die prematurely from heavy smog is nearly three times those who are killed in traffic accidents. China’s former health minister, Chen Zhu, stated in the general medical journal The Lancet that between 350,000 and 500,000 people die prematurely annually due to the country’s lethal air quality. That is in sharp contrast to earlier times when China’s smog-related deaths were hidden from the public.
Due to new public awareness of air quality, Beijing has seen far fewer foreign tourists. While China is the world’s third most popular destination for international travel, the smog puts off prospective visitors to the country. The decrease in tourists could potentially hurt government efforts to promote service industries such as tourism.
Pollution control, according to Xinhua, is a government priority in the region of Hebei province in Northern China, where seven of its 10 most polluted cities are located. Beijing has declared an “all-out effort” to rectify the problem. Meanwhile, Beijing has begun to take emergency action. When air quality reaches airpocalypse levels, they close building sites, take a third of official cars off the road, and temporarily shut down polluting factories. Over the next three years, the Chinese government has vowed to cut air pollution by 15 percent.
As China continues to contend with hazardous air pollution levels, Beijing’s virtual sunrise will welcome onlookers around the world yet another day.
by Dawn Levesque