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Shanghai's Blue Skies Are But a Smoggy Memory...

November 1st, 2010: The view from
my office disappears.

After living in an industrial region of China in the 90s, my lungs knew what to expect when I returned this past July. But they were wrong. Instead of slowly turning black again, they retained their healthy, pink color, and were able to take full breaths without coughing and expelling pieces of themselves on the sidewalk. My eyes were surprised, too. They could see beyond a couple of football field's distance, and Voila! Look at that blue sky! It was hard to believe I was in China. "Better City, Better Life," indeed (Shanghai's slogan for the 2010 World's Fair). But in the course of a single day this past autumn, my internal organs were proved wrong.

It was November 1st, the day after the closing ceremonies of the Shanghai World's Fair. I woke up, opened the drapes, and noticed I--and my new home--were engulfed in a cloud of toxic brown smog. I couldn't see past the building across the street. The majestic spire of the JW Marriott Hotel tower I admired from my office window was suddenly a hazy, dark silhouette. I imagined factory managers throughout the city using the ubiquitous countdown clocks formerly used for events like the Expo and the Olympics to count the seconds down to midnight on November 1st when they could fire up those burners once again, relieved that Shanghai was letting them get back to work while turning the city back into an environmental hell.

Here's what it used to look like.

Of course, they weren't the only ones rejoicing. November 1st was also when Shanghai allowed construction crews to recommence work after six months of rest. It all came together that day, and the city hasn't looked back since.

According to the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau, residents enjoyed a record 92 percent of days last year when the air quality was excellent or good, the top two levels of a five-tiered scale. But more than 60 percent of polluted days fell in November and December. In fact, the number of polluted days for both these months added up to the worst in five years. The Shanghai Daily, the local state-owned paper, chose to blame sandstorms. "Sandstorms polluted 13 days last year, much more serious than previous years," the paper reported the environmental bureau's Wu Qizhou as saying.

Before: The view from my home during the
Shanghai Expo

That may be true, but all the construction crews now working round-the-clock with pent-up energy from their half-year hiatus can't be helping, either. Still, things could be worse. I could live in Beijing. There, according to The New Yorker's Evan Osnos, the US embassy has an air monitor which sends out its results over Twitter. The score ranges from 1, representing the cleanest air, to 500, the dirtiest. Most US cities score below 100. The score in Beijing consistently exceeds 500.

...And after.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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