China's air, Singapore's benefit

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By Pauline D. Loh in Beijing

Pollution-at-Tiananmen-Square-Beijing

On a good day, you can see a clear sky and the Western Hills in the distance. That’s when Beijingers whip out their iPhones, take a picture and post it on their Weibo or microblog. That’s because blue skies are getting rare, and rarer in the capital city.

On a good day, the PM2.5 reading hovers around the low 30s to maybe 40. It is a reading that refers to the density of particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns and a reading of under 25 is considered healthy but anything over 100 is not. A PM 2.5 reading of 300 or more is definitely hazardous to health.

So hazardous, in fact, that it is prompting expatriate families in Beijing to ask for transfers … to Singapore.

Singapore may be plagued by the occasional haze from forest fires of neighboring countries around this time, but compared to the all-year smog that envelopes Beijing, it is an island paradise full of fresh air.

A Dutch family had their baby girl born in Beijing on a day when the PM 2.5 reading hit the mid-300s. The young parents were rightly worried about how their baby would be affected. By the time the baby was one, they decided it was too much of a risk and they asked for a transfer.

“That’s why we ended up in Singapore, it’s extremely better, our doors are open all the time.”

They are not alone. International headhunters are having difficulty finding the right candidates to fill positions for MNCs based in Beijing. Already a hardship post in terms of language and corporate cultures, now there is the additional risk of an unhealthy living environment.

An annual survey by the European Chamber of Commerce in Beijing highlights the problems.

The chief challenge named by members taking part in the study was the living environment, which 42 per cent said affected the retaining of expatriate talent.

Beijing’s bad air reputation has travelled far. When the European Chamber of Commerce presented a position paper in Europe recently, the usual concerns on regulatory issues were tossed aside. Instead, the focus was on “what is going on with the living environment in China in terms of the air pollution and the difficulties in finding the right people”.

It is a growing problem, according to Ivo Hahn, managing director for greater China in the Beijing office of recruitment company Stanton Chase International.

“Air pollution and environmental pollution come up very often,” says Hahn. “I have a case even in our own office of somebody, an overseas staff member, requesting to be transferred and his concern is purely pollution.”

But where does the smog come from?

Since 2008 when Beijing hosted the Olympics, the Herculean task of cleaning the stables meant many factories were moved from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province, about 300km upwind to the north.

Wind has become an important element. It brings the smog, but it also clears the smog to allow Beijingers that brief glimpse of blue skies.

The capital city is surrounded by hills on three sides that trap the smog once it gathers. Only grade 4 to 6 strength winds can blow it away. For a while, that is.

There have been many theories on why the smog gathers even when the wind blows. Beijing’s gridlocked traffic spews out enough particulates seven days a week, from morning to night, and there are still millions in the queue for an entitlement number to buy a car.

Chinese cuisine has been blamed, for its open fire cooking methods. Although that is really hard to take seriously.

A Dutch designer has now suggested a solution: A smog vacuum cleaner that will suck up the particulates in the air and turn them into a gel that he says can be processed and made into jewellery.

Somewhere, some time, there is going to be a whole range of trinkets waiting for the right people to buy them.