Beijing/Tianjin air pollution advisory warnings: Chinese vs. American

There are both political and cultural reasons for why, in China, they won’t just come out and tell you: “The air pollution is so horrible it’s off the scale. Stay inside and try not to breathe too deeply this week because the air is actually killing you.” Telling people upsetting news is not considered a cultural virtue in China. For example, doctors and family members will usually not tell a terminally ill family member that they are in fact terminal. And you don’t need me to explain the political reasons.

This week has seen a string of worse-than-usual-but-certainly-not-unheard-of bad air days. Now, to put that in perspective, we’re talking air that maxes out the re-calibrated scale at 500. In North America the scale only goes to 300, before which point they would declare an emergency and cancel all outdoor activities for everyone. Here’s what’s been said about the air the last few days, in English:

From the U.S. Embassy: “Crazy Bad”

this week, the depth and murkiness of the haze was so appalling that the automated system briefly entered the realm of black comedy with a “crazy bad” analysis of our air.

The “crazy bad” terminology … appeared to have been a joke embedded in the embassy’s monitoring program and triggered by a reading that was off the normal scale.

US officials quickly deleted “crazy bad” and replaced it with the term “beyond index”, but not before the original message was widely retweeted by shocked Beijingers.

It looks like they’re having trouble with their monitoring equipment now. I guess either they messed it up when they “fixed” it, or the equipment has collapsed under the sheer weight of accumulated airborne particles.

From MyHealth Beijing: “This is not a drill, people…”

This is not a drill, people: the Beijingair website ( for three days has been recording air pollution levels in the highest levels far above 300 AQI, and as of 7am Friday is 477 AQI. Peaks each day have tilted the machine at 500 AQI. This is indeed considered “emergency conditions”, and all schools and other places should be putting forward their action plans — clearly this would include cancelling all outdoor activities. That includes no outdoor recess, especially for toddlers.

We have a toddler — should we just buy a sun lamp and keep her inside?

Compare that to what’s been said in Chinese weather updates automatically sent to one of my coworker’s cells phones from his phone company:

Soft & Fragrant brief: Today the sky is subjected to the effect of relatively strong winds, scattering sand has appeared in our city; wear a face mask as much as possible when you go out, after coming back inside promptly wash your hands and face.

Weather Office 6:00 Announcement: Downtown today day and night clear with occasional clouds, 3rd-grade north wind changing to 4 or 5-grade, temperature will reach 1 degree below zero. Weather will get cold, reinforce warm protection of the head, head and chest; the indoor temperature difference increases, promptly put on and take off your coat.

Soft & Fragrant brief: Currently our city is pervaded with fog, visibility is lower than 500 meters, when you go out pay attention to traffic safety. In foggy weather, you should decrease outdoor activities as much as possible. This afternoon, the fog will gradually weaken, the sky will turn clear.

That’s right folks, nothing to see here, just clouds and fog, not that you could see anything with visibility at less than (a very generous) 500 meters.

It’s no secret that BJ spins the public numbers when it comes to monitoring air pollution. I’ve compared the actual numbers before:

For a visual comparison of a clear day vs. a “foggy” day, see:

For basic information about air pollution and air pollution monitoring:

See our Pollution category for the rest of our pollution whining.

4 thoughts on “Beijing/Tianjin air pollution advisory warnings: Chinese vs. American”

  1. Nice summary, Joel! It’s usually a bit worse in Tianjin, yes? Too bad you guys don’t have a monitor down there — or do you? I thought the “crazy bad” quote was hilarious, but of course scary at the same time…

  2. For fun, read the China Daily Air Quality report. Taiyuan, right up there with Linfen is one the worlds most polluted cities. Yet it’s daily pollution consistently measures in the “Moderate” range. So…then what is worse than this? Apparently only nuclear winter.

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