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October 22, 2013

Intense Smog Shutters Chinese City

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Severe smog and air pollution shut down the Chinese city of Harbin Monday as the region’s small particle pollution reached record levels 40 times higher than the international safety standard.

“People walked out of their houses today and thought that there was a blizzard,” said Evan Osnos, a writer for The New Yorker magazine who recently returned from living in Beijing for eight years. “But, in fact, it wasn’t snowing. This is how intense the air pollution was.”

The city’s 11 million residents were not allowed to go to school, take public transportation, or fly aircraft. The severe pollution is seen as a result of China’s tremendous economic and urban growth.

“For years, the argument in China that you heard from ordinary people was, our lives are getting better. We have cars we didn’t have before. We have apartments we couldn’t afford before. And we’re willing to put up with air pollution,” said Osnos. “They’re not as willing as they were before.”

The burst of smog was caused by Harbin’s heating system, which was turned on for the first time this year on Monday.

Osnos explains, “That was the first big cold day of the winter. And when that happened, that meant that they burned all of this coal. And all that coal went into the atmosphere,and it spiked and you got this extraordinary, intense air pollution.”

“The Chinese government still maintains very strong control around the country, obviously,” he said. “And one of the ways it does that is that it sets the day when the heat goes on. And so when the heat goes on for a city of 11 million people, that sets an enormous strain on the system.”


Warm up questions
  1. What is smog?
    • Smog is the brownish haze that pollutes our air, particularly over cities in the summer. Smog can make it difficult for some people to breathe and it greatly reduces how far we can see through the air. The primary component of smog is ozone, a gas that is created when nitrogen oxides (NOx) react with other chemicals in the atmosphere, especially in strong sunlight. NOx is produced whenever we burn something, such as coal in a power plant or gasoline in a car’s engine. (Source: EPA)
  2. What does it mean to be part of the middle class? What kinds of things are they able to afford that the lower class many not?
Discussion questions
  1. What were the factors that caused the smog day in Harbin?
  2. Why are citizens of Harbin less willing to put up with the deadly pollution than they were before?
  3. What are some ways that citizens and the government of Harbin could do to improve their environment?
  4. If you had to choose between being in the middle class or having terrible smog pollution what would you choose? Defend your answer.
Writing prompt
  • If you had to choose between being in the middle class or having terrible smog pollution what would you choose? Defend your answer and provide specific examples to support your choice.
  • Imagine you are a Chinese high school or middle school student living in Harbin. In your own words describe what your day was like when the smog reached record numbers.
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