By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

More Beijing impressions

[Editor’s note: Steve Kelman is visiting Beijing for the first time and reporting his impressions of China’s capital.]

The Beijing city government is proposing to introduce a touch screen inside taxi cars so customers can rate driver service in real time. This seems like a really nice idea. I have written earlier about a system at the Singapore airport where people push a button rating the service of passport officials. These kinds of real-time customer service ratings are really promising, and we should be looking to introduce more of them in the U.S.
The pollution in Beijing has been nothing short of disgusting. Two of the days were described as "sunny" in the weather report. And, when you looked at the sky, you could indeed see a sun. However, not only was there not a trace of blue in the sky, but in addition to the slimy gray above, the air at ground level was gray and murky, producing very low visibility.

The student I spent a day with referred to the weather being "foggy."  But that's an obfuscatory word, suggesting that the problem is weather, not pollution. Beijing is dry, not the kind of place that would be expected to get lots of fog. Day after day of "foggy" weather is implausible under any circumstances, and fog usually burns off by mid-morning. A first step towards the necessary outrage should be to call this pollution, not bad weather. I did ask this student whether he thought most people in Beijing would be willing to take a 5 percent salary cut in order to get clean air, and he thought few would.

At some point, the government is likely to take steps that will actually turn the pollution problem around -- Tokyo was filthy 40 years ago, and is very clean today (ditto New York and Washington, though not as bad as Tokyo at the time).
Americans who can't read Chinese often speculate on whether the two English-language dailies in China -- China Daily (owned by the government, now publishing a daily edition in the U.S., and paying for a four-page ad supplement in The Washington Post recently) and Global Times (the English edition of a Chinese newspaper of the same name, put out by the Communist Party) -- are more open than the Chinese-language press.

I was in China at the time of the controversy over the government's attempts to attach Internet blocking software to computers sold in China, and China Daily actually was editorially critical of the government's stance. Well, I have spoken with journalists at each paper, and they confirm the guess that these English-language papers are indeed freer in what they write than the Chinese press. For Global Times, the English and Chinese editions generally have little in common except the editorials and the front-page stories. It is also interesting to compare the two papers:  China Daily has a softer tone ("China is a developing country, not very powerful, we need to improve, but give us time"), while Global Times is more nationalistic.
U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman was apparently around the McDonald's at Wangfujin at the time "micro-blogs" (tweets) had first called for protests in Beijing. Huntsman stated he was out for a gathering with his family, but apparently this led to word searches of his name being blocked on the Internet in China.

Finally, I had a weird experience looking at a TV while waiting to eat lunch in a really nice Sichuan cuisine restaurant. First there was a Chinese version of the recent UPS ad campaign, "That's Logistics" (an extremely weird campaign even in English, in my view). The ad had the same visuals as the U.S. one, including a view of Shanghai's ultra-modern Pudong skyscraper district, but the "That's Logistic" song was sung in Chinese. The student I was with told me one line that translates as, "With UPS, your life will be bright," which seems a stretch. This ad was followed by one in English, with American-appearing athletes, for basketball sneakers. What was interesting was that the brand (Ji-Ning I think) is Chinese, not American. So this Chinese company was trying to establish a cool factor for its brand based on making it seem American.


Posted on Mar 02, 2011 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Thu, Mar 3, 2011 Sally Beijing

In fact, I like the sunny days in Beijing! But I hate the strong winds. Professor, I really recommand you coming again in autumn. Many people also say the best season to visit Beijing is autumn.

Thu, Mar 3, 2011 Gorgonzola

In Riyadh, it used to be (and maybe still) the custom to not report temperatures over 100 degrees. In Washington, the government withholds so many other kinds of (harmless) information, so we shouldn't get too critical of the Chinese calling smog "fog." Come to think of it, we have a lot of "fog" in Washington. As an example, and to veer back to a core focus of this blog, the tanker award to Boeing was extremely foggy, as well as odorous.

Thu, Mar 3, 2011 Steve Kelman

Thanks, commenters! The comment from Shan is really interesting, and underscores my fears. If people think this disgusting gunk is "fog," they will be less inclined to complain. So the first step towards pressure for change is for people to change their language.

Thu, Mar 3, 2011

Take a look at Baltimore, Los Angeles first, and then see the trash litoring on the streets of Philadelphia, then talk about pollution half way around the globe where their pollution is greatly appreciated as a sign of explosive properity, rapid economic growth, and wealth. Let's worry about issues here in our own backyard first.

Thu, Mar 3, 2011 Shan Beijing

Most people in China don't actually know that the pollution is pollution. Most really do think it is fog. This is because of the lack of straightforward information on air pollution here in China. If everyone knew how serious the air pollution was ("hazardous", sometimes over 500 on the PM2.5 index at the US Embassy in Beijing), the government would have a real instability problem on their hands because people would be very upset. Thus, the government would prefer people don't know.

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