Thursday, May 10, 2012

Clearing The Air In China

Diane Rehm had Atlantic contributor James Fallows on today, promoting his new book about how China is spending 1/2 a TRILLION dollars on developing their domestic commercial airline industry (link here).  Interesting, Fallows and his wife lived in China for 3 years, and in his words "was sick all the time" due to the massive air pollution in Shanghai and Beijing, where he lived & worked.   I found many of Fallows comments and the remarks of callers-in to be in-line with my own first hand observations of visiting China.

Coincidentally, the large wall calendar my employer issues to each employee to hang in their offices has a night image taken from the tallest building in Pudong Shanghai, the Jinmao Tower, looking at the 2nd tallest building next door, and showing the Pudong Shangrila hotel where I often stayed on my trips to China.  The calendar photo is ridiculously clear and crisp, which means it was photoshopped, doctored, to remove the smog, haze, and chocking atmospheric particulate.  To get a geographic perspective of "where" the calendar image was taken, I google-earthed the hotel and area of Pudong where I had previously stayed.  At the time, the Jinmao was not yet built, so I thought that perhaps the night calendar image was taken by an aircraft with extremely fast film.  But no, in the 9 years since my last visit, the Jinmao Tower was built & dwarfs its neighbors.

Interestingly, the air has been "cleared" by Google over the highest rent district of Pudong (see the image below).  The top part of the image is not a "refresh" error.  It's the natural appearance, on a cloudless but smog ridden day in Shanghai, with air quality that would have made 1980s Los Angeles air quality look absolutely pristine in comparison.

With terribly polluted air, undrinkable water, widespread political corruption, glacially slow internet speeds (which are all run through government monitored proxies), a 30,000 character alphabet that resists digitization, nation-wide travel restrictions that require average citizens to have travel visas to go between provinces, and 20 main dialects spoken, it will be a long time before China catches up to the West or surpasses any modern country in livability indices, quality of life, or technological advances.  Sure, there's more Chinese billionaires than there are American billionaires... but there's also many more Chinese peasants with pitch forks too.

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