The pollution in Beijing is causing ‘smog migration’ as many people plan an escape from the hazardous grey skies

By He Keyao Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/27 17:18:39

Experts predict that

Experts predict that "smog migration" will be a long-term trend if the environment does not improve. Photo: Li Hao/GT

It is an ordinary winter weekday in Beijing. Majia Chuqiao, 28, gets up in the morning and opens her curtains. However, she does not see clean streets, blue skies or fluffy clouds immersed in the warm morning sunshine. There is nothing but filthy grey smog swallowing the city, which is so thick that she can barely see any buildings in the distance. The smog is here again.

"When can we leave here?" she asked her husband. A strong sense of panic and depression arose in her from the thought that she would breathe in the fine pollution particles, and they would stick in her lungs.

Her throat begins to feel itchy and uncomfortable each time she starts to think about the smog.

Majia, who works as a business manager in a top company, came to Beijing five years ago after she graduated from university. She was filled with excitement about her bright future in the capital, but now all she wants to do is get away. 

"I cannot imagine what would happen in five or 10 years if I live in such a polluted environment," she said.

She is just one of the many who plan to leave the capital because of the pollution. Last week, the area experienced the most severe smog of the year. There was a red-alert, the highest warning level, issued from December 16 to 20. Knowing there is still more smog on the way, an increasing number of people are making a long-term escape plan.

In fact, there are already a number of people who have left Beijing because of the air pollution and a majority of those who left or will leave are highly-educated elites. According to a recent report by Wang Dingding, a Peking University professor of economics, the"talent loss" or "smog migration" will be a long-term trend if the environment does not improve.

As the choking smog in Beijing causes health problems, both mentally and physically, many highly educated employees and entrepreneurs are leaving the city, resulting in economic and talent loss. Photo: Li Hao/GT

As the choking smog in Beijing causes health problems, both mentally and physically, many highly educated employees and entrepreneurs are leaving the city, resulting in economic and talent loss. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Trapped in a dilemma

When Majia first came to Beijing five years ago and worked in the southern suburbs of the city, the air quality was not bad at all. With farmlands and a scenic countryside nearby, she enjoyed the natural environment very much. Later she went to Paris, France for a postgraduate program, but when she returned in 2014, things had changed. The blue skies and fresh air were gone, and in their place was the choking smog.

"I still remember the day I drove to an interview in December 2014. The smog was so thick that I could not see the cars in front of me. The visibility was so low that I felt I was in the movie Silent Hill (2006)," she said.

Majia was surprised by the fast spread of smog into Beijing's surrounding areas, but it was not until recently that she decided to leave.

Majia has a cold and she finds herself coughing more often on smoggy days. During the red-alert earlier this month, she had more phlegm than usual and felt severe pain in her throat. Moreover, she finds the haze has gradually developed into a psychological barrier as well. Each time she thinks about it she feels nervous and that she can smell the odor of smog wherever she goes, which sometimes results in physical discomfort.

In addition, she becomes sensitive to news about air pollution, and every time she reads reports about children studying and living in the polluted environment, she feels overwhelmed.

"I understand that we need to develop and keep the economy growing, and that it is hard to solve pollution problems overnight. However, when I think of the consequences it will cause to my health and that my future children will grow up here, I feel completely lost, " she said.

Majia wants to move to southern China's Guangdong Province where the natural environment is much more livable. However, her husband has a career in Beijing that he cannot give up. Given the excellent academic and business resources in Beijing, he can hardly find an equivalent job elsewhere.

A brighter career prospect or a healthier living environment? Majia finds herself trapped in the dilemma after failing to persuade her husband to move. "No matter what, I will definitely go in two years. I cannot stay for long," she said.

Heading south

Many others feel the same way, including Zhang Bin, co-founder of Air Matters, an app that shows air quality data in various locations.

Zhang, in his 30s, came to the capital from Fujian Province for his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Peking University in 2001. Living in Beijing for 13 years before moving to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, he witnessed the "smog invasion" in Beijing.

"What made a big impression on me were the strong wind and sandstorms that occurred every spring in Beijing around 2003. It was not until 2008 that the media started to talk about air quality," he said.

Zhang did not take it seriously at first, but when his wife got pregnant in 2011, they witnessed several severe hazes in Beijing that pushed him to pay attention to the impact that the pollution may have on his family. It was also at this time that he started to work on the app Air Matters.

"I think the overall air quality of Beijing hasn't changed that much this decade, but the exposure of relevant data and the emphasis that media and the public attach to it have been greatly enhanced," he said.

Zhang knew that wearing a mask or installing a purifier indoors is not a long-term solution, but Beijing carried his most beautiful memories and dreams, which he hated to part with. However, his son's sudden illness reminded him that it was time to leave.

In 2013, his son got severe pneumonia. "I went to the children's hospital every day and found crowds of kids in the waiting area. Most of them kept coughing, and it was at that moment that my wife and I realized that we had to move," he said.

The whole moving project took around half a year. Even though they are living in Shenzhen with opulent sunshine and fresh air, Zhang cannot help but miss Beijing from time to time.

"I spent my whole youth in Beijing. I attended college, fell in love, got married and had my son here. It has the best resources for education, medication and career development," he said. "If the pollution problem could be solved one day, I would think of going back. However, I don't know when that day will be."

A forced choice

Leaving Beijing is not an easy choice for many, yet for Beijing locals, the decision is even harder to make.

Yang Dawei, 33, grew up in Beijing, but moved to South Korea with his wife and child two years ago. For him, Beijing is not a place for pursuing dreams, but a place that carries all his childhood memories, and a place he used to call home.

"Beijing is not what it used to be. We do not need super-advanced technology, or the ever-increasing gross domestic product (GDP) and housing prices. What we need is a real livable place for every family," he said.

Yang, CEO of a startup, started to pay attention to air quality in 2010 when he found there were less and less blue skies, even on sunny days. He has allergic rhinitis and is sensitive to the polluted air. The morbidity of the inflammation increased dramatically as the air quality became worse. Once allergy symptoms hit his nose, he would then be attacked in his throat and trachea. When his allergies are severe, he has headaches and a fever, which hinders his personal and work life.

When he decided to leave in 2013, his body was already very weak. Colds, fevers and respiratory infections were common scenarios in his life. To escape from the haze and find the right destination for his family, he spent a whole year visiting different places before he finally chose South Korea's Cheju. Since Cheju is near to his home country, he can visit his parents and friends in Beijing easily.

Concerning talent loss due to pollution, Yang feels sorry. He said it is a pity for both the city and those talents who left. For the former, it means the loss of quality human resources and capital, and for the latter, it means they have to start from scratch somewhere new.

According to the latest report by 36Kr, a technology press that focuses on Internet start-ups, hundreds of startup entrepreneurs were asked about the smoggy conditions in Beijing, and around 27.55 percent of them say they have already incorporated moving into their long-term plan, and another 4.08 percent have already set about moving. The economic and talent loss of this gradual migration is hard to predict.

The growing trend

The trend of "smog migration" is more obvious among students and recent graduates from universities in Beijing. Free from family burdens and a career foundation, they are more easily able to move.

Zhao Jia (pseudonym), 23, a postgraduate in a top medical university in Beijing, mirrors many of their opinions.

She came to Beijing to study in 2011, and the pollution over years has pushed her to make a series of choices. Some were hard, such as giving up her favorite outdoor sports, yet some directed her future career path, such as choosing a major.

"I still remember the first time I went into an operation room. After living with polluted air for such a long time, I immediately sensed the improved air quality in the room. It felt so good to breath freely in the first-class quality air," she said.

Due to high medical requirements, the air in an operating room is highly filtered and controlled, and this became the main reason she chose to become an ocular surgeon instead of practicing internal medicine.

The air quality made her realize what she really wants in her life, and she plans to go back to her hometown in Fujian once she graduates.

She said a safe and happy living environment for her and her future family is much more important than fame and wealth. Zhao said many of her friends in the university left Beijing, and that smog is one of the main triggers. Some of them said they feel sorry for her since she has been living in the polluted city for six years, which is a big contrast to years ago when settling down in the capital was something to be proud of.

"Each time I return home, my parents urge me to leave the smoggy city. All I want to do now is work harder and be well prepared for the day I move."

Newspaper headline: Airpocalypse


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