We’re All Waiting for the First People to Die in Beijing

The EPA categorizes the Air Quality Index (AQI) into six parts: Good (0-50); Moderate (51-100); Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150); Unhealthy (151-200); Very Unhealthy (201-300); and Hazardous (301-500). It’s been hazardous in Xi’an, where I live, since the New Year. Yesterday, the AQI cleared 500. As I write this it’s 605. My throat feels like it’s coated with ash, and I can’t brush my teeth clean enough.

This morning, I started reading a Chinese essay about pollution that was published a little over a week ago. A few hours later, it had been censored from its original website. I dug it up again on a comment board and started to really translate it. And then I figured that if the government’s going after it, I should probably publish it on a US-based site.

The original Chinese text follows my translation. I’m sure there will be other records of the article even if it does end up getting wiped from every Chinese site, but it doesn’t hurt to keep an extra copy here and there.  Thanks to Lu Meichen for cultural info. Massive thanks to Linch Zhang for help translating and preserving linguistic quirks! If any other Chinese speakers or former classmates see more language issues, please let me know.


We’re All Waiting for the First People to Die in Beijing

Li Shanglong

Ten years ago, I heard that a distant relative of mine had gotten cancer, and I asked my father, “What’s cancer?” My father said that cancer is a kind of terminal illness, and there’s no cure–you just wait to die. And then he said, more happily, that there fortunately weren’t many people in our country who got cancer.

Back then, he was right. But these days, who can say they don’t have several close friends and relatives with cancer?

Today, Beijing is once again covered in smog. It used to be that you couldn’t see Mao’s portrait if you stood in front of Tiananmen Square.1 Nowadays, you can’t see Mao if you hold a ¥100 note in front of your very eyes.2 I originally thought that only Beijing was this bad, but I slowly came to realize that our neighboring cities were more or less just as polluted. In Beijing, we wait every day for the wind to come and blow the pollution away so it can hang in other cities. But for the past two days there has been no wind. The odd-even license plate policy is in place.3 Yesterday everyone jeered at it: if you limit our even-numbered cars and the pollution is just as bad as it was before–well, that just shows what a problem we must have with our odd-numbered cars! Today it’s the odd-numbered drivers turn to complain. Once everything else has been limited, they’ll start restricting flatulence.

I don’t dare to imagine my children growing up in this kind of environment. It’s said that Beijing’s children’s hospitals are already bursting with children who can’t stop coughing and adults who can’t stop crying. I’m not even a little surprised. I’ve been in Beijing since 2008, and I cough practically every morning, sometimes to the point of tears. But why haven’t I complained? It’s very simple: look at what happened to Chai Jing.4 Once upon a time she wrote Insight, and now she’s completely out of sight.

Jack Ma5 has said that he actually really likes smog and haze, because the privileged elite get their own specially provided food, their own special milk and water, but they can’t get their own special air.

Even though that’s true, I’m still curious: since they can’t breathe their own special air, why is the pollution getting worse with every new attempt to regulate it?  Many of the large factories around Hebei province have already closed, many employees did not collect a salary even before they were barred from working, we’ve limited the time we can drive our cars–but the pollution is as bad as before, so bad that you can’t see all five fingers on your outstretched hand.

People on the street are gradually becoming numb. Before, everyone would rush to buy PM 2.5 masks, but now you can see that people from all walks of life have stopped wearing them. People riding bicycles look all around, expressionless, and our kuai di6 brothers keep dashing around, hard at work, on their motorcycles. Our food delivery brothers on their electric bikes take big lungfuls of air. In a city this big, there seem to be only two ways to manage smog: wait for the wind to blow, or just rely on ten million people working hard to breathe it in.

Fortunately we’re still in a state-mandated vacation, and on break people can go out of town,7 change their filters, and keep breathing. Suggesting an activity like, “Run away from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou,” is like everybody actually being able to run away, leave for a few days, and then obediently come back.

In America, if you want to make a car you go to Detroit, if you want to make a movie you go to Los Angeles. In China, sorry, to do anything you have to go to Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, otherwise you won’t have an opportunity to better yourself. All your friends will come Beijing, and they’ll helplessly say with us, “Well, we have to breathe this pollution, better breathe it and get healthy!”

Now, it’s hard to leave to leave Beijing even if you want to. Because of the pollution, there are huge delays at the airport; if you want to take a train, it’s almost impossible to buy a ticket because Chinese New Year is coming up. Since you can’t run away, you can only learn from Professor Dan8 and try not to breathe in the smog: try your hardest not to go outside, you can’t win against that air. Try your hardest not to let smog enter your house, use air filters. Try your hardest not to let the smog into your lungs. And if none of this helps, then you can only rely on your good spirits for protection, and try your hardest not to let the smog into your heart.

But once you’re facing the attack of a disease, once a terminal illness looms near, we all have no way to breathe, our bodies can’t exist, and the triumph of the spirit has as much use as flatulence.

Now that I’ve written this far, I feel awful. I originally wanted to take a break. But when I look at this dim Beijing, I cannot stop myself writing a couple sentences. I know there are people saying, “Come on, Shanglong, you don’t have to keep writing about this. You should rest. Everyone sees the pollution, and you keep on talking about it. Are you sick?”9

Yes, I am sick. These past two mornings I’ve been unable to stop coughing, and now that I think about it, I’ll get sick sooner or later. The people in this city are all already sick. More of us are getting sicker. What does it matter if a writer announces prematurely that he’s sick?

I keep thinking: why has everyone been so silent, even today? It’s simple, it’s because the pollution still hasn’t directly led to a death. To speak plainly, we’re all waiting for the pollution to make its first ghosts. We are all just expecting not to be the first ones to go. But once these deaths have been blown up in the media, once these cases have been pushed in front of our noses, we’ll discover that we ourselves may not have anything to say, or may not be able to say what we want.

In 2014 the mayor of Beijing said, “Let us lift our heads and look at whether we handle pollution well in 2017.” People complained online about the pollution and asked, can we really live till then? The good part is, we survived till now. The bad part is, we remember, we’ve lifted our heads and looked, and we cannot see. The scary part is, that at this time, this moment we are just trying our hardest not to breathe.

We used to think that good fortune was money, a good name, and a good position. Now we just wish for wind.

Remember the blue sky.


1 Mao’s portrait hangs over the main entrance to Tiananmen Square. It’s one of the most iconic images of modern China and I 100% forgot about it when I first translated this piece.

2 Mao is on all Chinese paper currency worth ¥1 or more.

Policy allowing only cars with certain license plate numbers to drive on certain days, in order to reduce traffic and pollution.

4 Chai Jing (柴静) is a treasure, an extraordinary activist who risked (and basically lost) her career as a news anchor to make Under the Dome (穹顶之下), an investigative documentary about pollution in China. Her autobiography was called Insight.

5Jack Ma (马云) is the chairman of Alibaba Group, and he is not messing around. In 2010 Alibaba started earmarking 0.3% of annual revenue to environmental work, mostly water and air quality projects. He hopes people will remember him as a Tai Chi master rather than the Alibaba guy, which, well, good luck.

6 快递 Kuai di delivery guys are out all day. They’re often stuck behind some horrible old truck from the 1970s that belches death fumes right into their faces.

In China, 外地/wai di (outside place) means basically anywhere that isn’t Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. “Out of town” is practically the entire country.

8 Professor Dan (丹老师) is a famous Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter) personality.

“Are you sick?” is equivalent to “What’s the matter with you?” or “What are you doing?”


我们都在等待第一批死在北京的人

文:李尚龙

十多年前,我听说了遥远的一个亲戚得了癌症,我问父亲:什么是癌症?父亲说,癌症是一种绝症,无解,只能等死。然后又有些庆幸的说,好在这个病在我们国家得的人很少。

这句话在当时是对的,可是,放到今天,谁敢说自己身边没几个得癌症的朋友和亲戚?

今天,北京再一次雾霾了,原来是在天安门看不到毛爷爷,现在拿出一百块钱放在面前都快看不到毛爷爷了。我以为只有在北京是西天取经,后来发现周围的城市都多多少少的被污染了。我们在北京天天等风来,期待风把雾霾挂到别的城市去,可是这两天风没来,单双号限行来了,昨天大家调侃:限了我们双号,雾霾依旧,说明都是单号车的问题。今天该单号车说了。等都限了,就该限制人放屁了。

我不敢想象自己的孩子生活在这种环境下,据说北京的几家儿童医院已经爆满了,孩子们止不住的咳嗽,大人们止不住的眼泪。我一点不觉得好奇,我从08年来北京,直到今天,我几乎每天早上都会咳嗽,有时候咳到流眼泪,可是我为什么不抱怨呢?原因很简单,你看看柴静,原来她能写《看见》,现在她人都看不见了。

马云说他其实挺喜欢雾霾的,因为特权阶层有自己特供的食物,有自己的特供的牛奶和水,可是他们不能有自己特供的空气。

虽然这么说,可是我还是好奇,既然他们没有,为什么这雾霾还是越治理越糟糕。为什么没有任何有效的治理方式?为什么所有治理的方案都在让这个城市的空气越来越糟糕?河北附近的大量工厂已经关门,许多工人连工资都没拿就不让上班了;单双号也限号了;可是雾霾依旧,依旧伸手不见五指。

街上的人们逐渐开始麻木,原来大家还会去抢购pm2.5的口罩,现在大街上形形色色的人们也开始不带口罩,人们骑着单车面无表情的环顾着四周,快递小哥骑着摩托车努力的奔波着,外卖小哥骑着电瓶车大口的吸着,这么大的城市,治理雾霾似乎只有两种方式:等风来以及靠几千万人努力的呼吸着。

好在我们还有法定假期,放假了大家去外地换个筛子回来继续吸。搞了个“逃离北上广”的活动,就好像大家真的能逃离北上广一样,出去几天,还得乖乖回来。

在美国,你想做汽车可以去底特律,想做电影你可以去洛杉矶,在中国,不好意思,你都得去北上广,要不你没机会变成更好的自己,朋友从外地回到北京,无奈的跟我们说:雾霾还是要吸的,吸吸更健康。

现在,想逃离北京都难咯,机场飞机因为雾霾大面积延误;想坐火车,马上又春运买不到票。既然跑不掉,就只能自强不吸学习于丹老师那样:能做的就是尽量不出门,不去和它较劲,尽量不让雾霾进到家里,打开空气净化器,尽量不让雾霾进肺里,如果这都没用了,就只有凭借自己的精神防护,不让雾霾进到心里。

可是,当疾病来袭,绝症靠近,人都无法呼吸,肉体都会不存在,精神胜利有个屁用。
写到这里心里挺难过,本来想休个假,看到这朦胧的北京,憋不住想说两句。我知道又有人来说:尚龙啊,不要总是写这些东西,好好休假,雾霾大家都看见了,就你说出来,你是不是有病啊?

对啊,我就是有病啊,这两天早上我还是咳嗽不止,一想,反正早晚得病,这个城市的人大家都早就病的不轻了,多病两个,提前宣布自己病了又能怎么样呢?

我一直在想:为什么大家到今天还这么沉默呢?很简单,是因为雾霾还没有导致人的死亡。说白了,我们都在等待雾霾导致的第一批冤魂,我们只是期待自己不是第一批。可是,当这些死亡被媒体放大,这些案例被推到了我们的身边,我们才发现,自己会不会没话说或者说不出话了。

2014年北京市长说:2017年治理不好雾霾,提头来见。网友调侃,雾霾这样,我们能活到那天吗?幸运的是,我们活到了,可惜的是,接下来纪念,提头来见,看不见的,恐怕是此时此刻每一个正在自强不吸的我们。
原来我们以为幸福是有钱有名有地位,现在我们只希望有风。

怀念蓝天。

One thought on “We’re All Waiting for the First People to Die in Beijing

  1. Dear

    As a people live in beijing, I do see this article few days ago and discuss it with my college right now. We all hope we could do something to help our home, same to the government. We understand it will take some time but we have to move forward now.

    Thank you for translating it. There are some small issues about the translation. Hope it could be correct foe better understand Ing.
    My email guyubo@incomrecycle.com
    Thanks
    Bob

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