Life for Expats in Polluted Chinese Cities

Over the past few years living in China, the air pollution conundrum (among many development issues) has been a major concern for expats and locals alike. Just last month (October 2013) an “airpocolypse” shrouded the city of Harbin in northeastern China at a level of around 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter! That’s off the charts and about “40 times the safety level recommended by the World Health Organisation” reports the Guardian newspaper.* Obviously this is (and will be) a major cause of lung cancer in the future, along with the effects of circa-1950s attitudes toward smoking.

Expats are coming and going all the time in China, but I’ve noticed an unusual number of articles in the past 2 years which refer to a “exodus” of expats leaving the country. This is certainly hyperbolic but still noteworthy. There are numerous reasons for people to choose to leave, including sour business deals, bureaucracy, and cultural disconnect; however, the most common quality-of-life concern has got to be the air.

The health concerns of those living and visiting China can be seen in the numbers- one example being the reduction in tourism Beijing has experienced in just the past year (Quarters 1 to 3 between 2012 and 2013). The Beijing Youth Daily reported in October that local travel agents have seen a 50% decline year-on-year in the number of tourists visiting the city, although official numbers are closer to 15%.* And with the cold, dry air of winter just getting started in northern China, you can be sure that tackling air pollution will probably be their #1 priority.

Although not as bad as the Harbin smog last month, Shanghai recently shutdown schools and cancelled flights due to “unprecedented air pollution” reported by Forbes online. Guangzhou, a metropolis of over 12 million residents (2010 census), also has prepared contingency measures for when PM2.5 measures over 300.

In 2008, the Asia Society produced a series of videos which provide a brief overview of the pollution issues in China along with some engaging content.

Did I leave China because of air pollution? Not exactly. Just like anyone else, there are a bunch of reasons that come together to cause you to make a big move. And although I lived in one of the cleanest coastal cities in China there were other concerns like food quality and noise pollution.

There are many livable places in China and I recommend all expats in China (especially with family) to consider the many aspects of life there. If you have left China (or choosing to stay) share your stories with us below. Thanks!