Breathing in Beijing

Beijing is famous for its filthy air. Even more so than sky-high house prices or terrible traffic, it’s the most complained-about thing in the city among both locals and outsiders alike. Anyone who has never experienced this kind of air before takes some time to adjust. Using indoor air purifiers and wearing facemasks when outdoors makes life here much more pleasant, and many of my classmates who didn’t take the proper precautions reported headaches, blocked noses and breathing difficulties in their first few months here.

A major cause of the air problems is coal-burning, especially during the winter months when this part of north China gets very cold and every inhabited building is slurping electricity to power its central heating system. In more remote areas, some people burn coal directly for heating, and factories in Beijing and neighbouring provinces also emit copious amounts of soot. China’s biggest coal-mining province, Shanxi, is nearby and upwind of here. Combined with emissions from diesel trucks, passenger vehicles, cigarettes, barbecues, and other good things, the air can become an unpleasant soup of chemicals that lingers for days until the wind blows it away and makes it someone else’s problem.

A household name in China is “PM 2.5”, which refers to particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres. These are very fine particles, like soot, that can penetrate deep into the lungs and get lodged there, potentially causing serious health issues even many years down the line. Very small particles are considered more dangerous than larger ones, and are also more difficult to filter out using facemasks or air purifiers.

The other major outdoor air quality problem is ground-level ozone, which is formed by UV rays interacting with vehicle emissions, methane, and other VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the air. This ozone is called a secondary pollutant, because it is not directly emitted by a factory or vehicle, and it can irritate the lungs, bringing about asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks, and the like. Fortunately, ground-level ozone is not a serious problem outside the summer months or at night-time when there isn’t enough sunlight to form it, but facemasks do not offer effective protection.

When I first arrived, I looked online for recommendations about which facemasks to buy. Although there are several good manufacturers, the best-known is 3M, who make not exactly fashionable but very reputable protective equipment for people who work on construction sites and other environments with poor air.

A photo of me wearing the 3M 6200 facemask
The 3M 6200 reusable facemask is better than it looks.

The 3M 6200 costs around 90 RMB (£9.60) on It’s a bit too much for everyday use, but is good when cycling, since it works against car fumes and nobody really has time to stare at you as you speed by.

3M 6200 facemask
This reusable facemask has two filter pieces on both sides of the face. The soft, white filter captures dry particles (PM 2.5) and the thick cartridge beneath uses activated carbon pellets to adsorb organic vapours.

The white, foam-like PM 2.5 filters cost 53 RMB (£5.60) for a pack of 10, which is enough for five changes. Even if you use the mask every day, you only need to change the filters about once a week. The activated carbon cartridges cost around 37 RMB (£3.90) for a pack of two.

Another model is the 3M 9332, which is a disposable facemask and much more convenient to wear and carry. One seller on Tmall lists a box of 10 for 228 RMB (£24.30). It’s not completely effective against car fumes, cigarette smoke and the like, but filters out dangerous PM 2.5 and heavy metal particles.

A photo of me wearing the 3M 9332
The 3M 9332 disposable facemask works well against outdoor air pollution in Beijing.
3M 9332 facemask
This disposable facemask is the one I normally wear on smoggy days in Beijing. It can last anywhere from a week to a month depending on air pollution levels and how often it’s used.

The straps on this mask go around the head and feel very light, which is not the case for some of the cheaper masks that loop around the ears and tug very hard on them. It folds neatly and can be carried in a pocket or bag. The noseclip can be moulded to suit different nose shapes and sizes, and the breathing valve stops the mask from becoming too hot or moist. The grey foam around the nose also makes it more comfortable to wear.

There are also some air quality issues specific to indoor environments, like mould and formaldehyde, but cleaning the house is a more effective remedy than wearing a mask all the time when inside.

The internet in China

One of the things often reported about China in the English-language press is that the Chinese internet is policed and heavily censored by the government in Beijing. The exceptions to the rule are pirated software, movies and music, which are freely available without any regard for the original authors’ copyright. The usual conclusion drawn is that ordinary Chinese people are afraid of criticizing their leaders, that freedom of speech is limited, and that Chinese Internet companies basically create copycat versions of US websites while the government blocks foreign competitors from entering the Chinese market.

Like many foreign news stories about China, there is some truth to the allegations, but many of the assumptions are also wrong, and the picture often looks different after living here and experiencing things in China first-hand for a while. I’ll spend some time in this blog post discussing some quirks and, in my opinion, misconceptions about the Chinese internet.

When I first arrived in Beijing a couple of years ago, my first goal was to adjust to life here as quickly as possible, and that meant getting used to any restrictions on non-Chinese websites. Many household names in the West, including Twitter, Google, Facebook, and YouTube, are all blocked here. While there are good Chinese alternatives, many foreigners in China cannot read Chinese well enough to get used to them, and also miss getting information from friends back home. Most of the foreign students I know here pay for access to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or other proxy service that lets them access websites that are blocked in China.

The government is, of course, aware of ways to circumvent their restrictions, but generally turns a blind eye because the percentage of people who use VPNs is very small, and in many cases there are legitimate reasons, especially for businesses or research students, to want access to non-Chinese Internet services. However, after settling in, I set up a Chinese email account like a local person, and, for the first few months, got used to only keeping in touch with friends via WeChat (a popular Chinese messaging app), Skype, postcards and emails. The only non-Chinese website I used regularly was Wikipedia (English Wikipedia is not blocked, although the Chinese one is), and, for searching in English, Bing (which is also not blocked) did the job well. I didn’t have any serious problems with this arrangement, although some foreign websites rely on Google services, and, because Google is blocked, the websites would load very slowly or not at all. Unfortunately, this includes my favourite local newspaper, the Bucks Herald.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that Chinese companies only copy designs and technologies from abroad, and don’t come up with anything innovative by themselves. This was largely true 10 years ago, and it’s still the case that many Chinese websites and apps are based on open-source programming languages, databases, and operating systems that were developed elsewhere. However, the quality of features that are developed for local consumers, and how enthusiastically they are adopted by users, often exceeds what Western internet companies have managed in their own countries. This is especially the case for online payments; in the bigger cities, it’s easy to buy groceries, pay for a taxi, or get a snack from a vending machine using a mobile phone app, and Facebook is now copying heavily from WeChat, rather than the other way round.

Another misconception is that the Chinese government suppresses any information online that is critical of them. Snide remarks and complaints about the government are not difficult to find, for example, when the air pollution is bad. To a limited extent, the government encourages criticism in order to identify problems that need to be fixed. However, unauthorized attempts to organize collective action are certainly met with censorship and surveillance. This is more evident and heavy-handed in China than in Western countries, although it’s certainly not uncommon in the latter either, especially under the rationale (or pretence) of anti-terrorism, or because of various libel or copyright laws. The Chinese government is also rumoured to hire people to post positive comments about them in online forums, a task that in Western countries is outsourced to (presumably much more expensive) public relations companies.

In many cases, the government regulates the Internet tightly because it knows that the digital flow of information affects how people behave and think. It’s also not economically or politically sensible to hand over control of this data to for-profit foreign companies (and, by extension, the US government, since practically all the major international internet companies are under US legal jurisdiction). Many European countries are also uneasy with this arrangement, but lack technical or political alternatives.

One true stereotype about the Chinese internet is rampant software piracy. A cracked version of ArcGIS, made by my former employer, is easy enough to download and install for free. Any technology entrepreneurs hoping to make it big in China should note that online subscriptions are the best way to make money here!

One final thing is that access to online pornography is fairly well-controlled in China. However, “tasteful” pictures of good-looking women are easy enough to find on Chinese search engines, and are met with a shrug by internet regulators.