Housing, education, immigration, healthcare: How smog alters Chinese lifestyles

By Zhang Yan, Initium Medium

Continuous haze over China’s urban areas is prodding more Chinese to mull their options in coping with the country’s air pollution crisis.

Beijing air pollution

Beijing air pollution

Growing numbers of rich and middle-class Chinese are considering moving to less-developed areas in China or leaving the country entirely due to air pollution. Some have bought real estate in Hainan Island and western Yunnan province. Others have purchased houses in Jeju Island in Korea and Chiang Mai in Thailand as second homes.

Such real estate purchases cannot be correlated statistically with the bad air problem. But the heavy haze has undoubtedly made some Chinese cities and towns less suitable for living.

Some households who can’t afford to leave are also adopting practical strategies to deal with the problem. Electronic air cleaners, for example, have become indispensable items in places like offices, bedrooms, restaurants and cars. Some folks put on masks imported from abroad and change them every day. 

Some people completely ignore the haze because of financial limitations. Express delivery men, cab drivers, cleaning workers endure prolonged exposure to air pollution to keep their jobs and make ends meet. Under the haze, life is not equal in China. In theory, all people breathe the “same air.” But because of disparities in social class, haze-impacted lifestyles have become increasingly differentiated.

Schools for children from rich families have air cleaners

Air purifiers for sale in Chinese store

Air purifiers for sale in Chinese store

Now that breathing clean air has become a luxury, people with middle- and upper-incomes can pay to protect themselves. For example, the International School of Beijing has spent $50 million to build two brand-new gyms with air cleaning systems.

This allows them to exercise without being exposed to polluted air from the outside. The practice is being imitated by other international schools. Tuition in these schools ranges from 100 to 200 thousand yuan per year putting them within reach to only a limited number of Chinese. 

Five-star hotels in China such as Hyatt have begun to install air cleaning systems in their guest rooms.  Since 2013, some multinationals have also started to pay air pollution allowances for foreign employees. Their Chinese employees, however, do not enjoy the same benefit.

Children from poor families are exposed to polluted air

State-owned China Daily reported recently that it will take a few more decades for China’s Air Quality Index to meet internationally acknowledged standards. One parent said that “this means that children in Beijing will now grow up breathing polluted air.” These children will pay more for such exposure. For example, they will have to visit the hospitals often, won’t have the opportunity to exercise outside, and won’t be able to bathe in sufficient sunlight throughout the year. 

Insurance companies also see a business opportunity in the haze hazard. People’s Insurance Company of China (PICC) formerly offered Beijing residents insurance cover against health risks caused by air pollution, promising to pay out 1,500 yuan ($240) to policy holders hospitalized by smog. T

he policy, available for people aged 10 to 50, also paid out 300 yuan when the city’s official smog index exceeds 300 for five consecutive days, a level considered “hazardous.” Regulators later fined PICC because it changed the insurance policy without official authorization and cancelled the insurance scheme and others like it.

Selling the family house in Beijing

Chinese film director Zhangke Jia has said he is determined to leave Beijing because of the haze. Places like Sanya, Dali, Xiamen, as well as Chiang Mai in Thailand, Jeju Island in Korea and Singapore have become popular destinations for Chinese people suffering from polluted air.

Despite a lack of government statistics on the subject, it is now common knowledge that the haze problem in northern China is impacting the local real estate market. An example is urban residents buying property in place like Hainan Province which faces the Gulf of Tonkin.

According to data from  the China Real Estate Information Corporation, the majority of new property owners in Hainan are from Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Shanxi, as well as other areas of northeastern China. House prices in Sanya, a resort area on Hainan Island, have climbed to 20 thousand yuan per square meter. Clean air is the obvious attraction. 

China’s elite increasingly relocates overseas

In addition to social mobility, educational resources and social welfare, the “no haze” factor has become a key motivation for Chinese immigrating abroad. According to Forbes, those eligible to be part of China’s rich classes numbered 15,28 million in 2015. These very affluent Chinese are stirring another wave of overseas immigration to escape polluted air in China.

In another revelation, a 2014 Hurun Report disclosed that 64% of Chinese people who have more than $1.6 million dollars to their name have moved or will be moving abroad. Pollution and food safety were given as the two most critical reasons for the exodus. 

“If environmental degradation continues, mid- and upper-income class (as well as low-income but younger age groups) will inevitably move abroad. This resembles the immigration wave during wartime. No one can stop it, because the need for security is the basic need of human beings,” said Chinese economist Dingding Wang.    

China’s model has made people richer, but air dirtier

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai skyline

The country’s real estate and vehicle sectors have gunned the engines of GDP growth. But these industries have wrought irreversible environmental damage. Recent articles in the Chinese media have pointed out that investment in low-cost, high-pollution industries has contributed enormously to Chinese economy in past decades.

However, as the rich urban middle class has reaped the benefits, they are also paying the cost in environmental terms.

Responding the this situation, the Chinese government in 2015 revised its official manual on air pollution under emergent conditions. It was the first revision since the manual was published in 2013.

Currently, when the Air Quality Index surpasses a reading of 200 for 72 hours, the government will publicly declare a “red alert.” Under such conditions, industries will be encouraged to suspend manufacturing, vehicles will be placed under operating restrictions, and kindergarten as well as elementary and middle schools will suspend classes. 

The New York Times once pointed out that air pollution had made Chinese people more equal. Some Chinese media say the opposite is the case. For example, under the new “red alert,” children from lower-income families will be breathing polluted air, while those from the upper class will be able to turn on the air-cleaning system in their home. Even some rich Chinese people are buying fresh air by going to Canada. Who says money can’t buy happiness? For some Chinese, they think it can.

This article was first published in Chinese on Jan. 21, 2015 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.

Translated for Asia Times by Tenei Nakahara.



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