By Whitney Webb
“You ask me why I left Beijing? It’s because I want to live.”
Though many of the world’s refugees – particularly those seeking asylum in Europe – are fleeing war and political instability, thousands in other parts of the world are now fleeing the hazardous effects of man-made pollution. In the final weeks of 2016, China’s air pollution crisis – estimated to claim the nearly 1 million lives annually – became so bad that tens of thousands have now fled in order to avoid causing permanent damage to their lungs and bodies. Since December 17th, massive sections of north and central China have been under “red alert” due to the toxic smog enveloping key centers of industry, including the nation’s capital Beijing. The alert – slated to last only 5 days but still in effect – has forced schools to close and heavy industries to slow or halt production. Residents were also ordered to stay indoors as the yellow-grey haze enveloped large swaths of the country’s industrial heartland. Greenpeace estimated that the environmental calamity affects a population equivalent to those of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined.
Despite the fact that some residents have either decided to or have no choice but to stay, many of those who are financially able have decided to flee. The Guardian reported that China’s leading online travel agent, Ctrip, expected 150,000 to leave China in the coming months as they try to outrun the toxic haze, with most heading to destinations such as Japan, Australia, Indonesia, and the Maldives. Other residents have opted for pollution-free destinations within China. Jiang Aoshuang and her family left Beijing to protect their health by heading for Chongli, a smog-free ski resort three hours from the city. However, upon arriving, Jiang’s family found the resort packed with other “smog refugees.” Jiang told the Global Times “it really felt like a refugee camp.”
Another Beijing native who fled to Chongli told reporters “You ask me why I left Beijing? It’s because I want to live.” Yet, many of those who are trying to escape the pollution have been unable to leave as the thick smog has paralyzed airports in Northern China, particularly in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shijiazhuang. In the first days of the alert, Beijing’s domestic airport canceled all of its flights while its international airport canceled nearly 300 due to poor visibility.
Though China’s government has officially labeled the crisis as a “meteorological disaster,” environmental activists have been warning that a winter smog crisis was imminent months beforehand. Lauri Myllyvirta, a Beijing-based environmental activist working with Greenpeace, said that the group had warned of the coming pollution crisis in summer when the government began an economic stimulus program benefiting some of the nation’s heaviest polluters like cement and steel factories. “A big part of what happened is that the steel price went up when the government started a huge wave of construction projects to stimulate the economy,” Myllyvirta told the Guardian.
However, he and other activists remain optimistic as government policy is set to restructure the economy and preserve the environment in the next few years. Indeed, China no longer has much of a choice about the matter with many locals now living in temporary and permanent exile due to the air quality.