Saturday Diary / A China journey, from bad air to bobbleheads

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Pittsburghers take their air quality seriously. That's why I've been worried about the people I met in Beijing in November and what they are breathing these days.

When I arrived in China with four other American journalists the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the afternoon air was thick and gray, with the acrid odor of something burning. We had heard about the notorious Beijing smog, a byproduct of the country's runaway economy, and we figured this was it. Not even close.

In January, when we were back home, the TV networks showed video of Beijing commuters donning face masks and parents keeping their children home from school. Chinese officials tried to limit further the number of cars coming into the city, beyond the rule that already bars 20 percent of vehicles from entering Beijing on any given work day.

To give you some perspective, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers air to be "hazardous," and tells people to stay indoors, when fine-particulate pollution hits 300 on its Air Quality Index. In mid-January, readings on the air monitor at the U.S. embassy in Beijing were an unthinkable 700 or higher. After a couple months of moderation, the readings jumped this week and returned to the "hazardous" zone. Late last night the pollution index cracked 400.

A friend of mine who travels frequently to China canceled a business trip in January because of Beijing's pollution. He said it was not due to any respiratory condition, but advice from his doctor that it's better to be safe than sorry when the air is this bad.

Maybe when Chinese leaders see that the toxic smog is costing them yuan, not just lives, they'll do something about it.

What took me to China was a journalism fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center and the Better Hong Kong Foundation. In the course of two weeks my colleagues and I visited modern Beijing, rural Yunnan and vibrant Hong Kong.

Although I wrote in the Jan. 27 Post-Gazette about how different life is in China, I was reminded over and over that the Chinese want pretty much the same things as Americans. Clean air. A good job. An educated child. A decent car.

While in Yunnan province one day, our mini-bus traveled a remote mountain road on the way to Donglianhua, a 600-year-old village inhabited by Chinese Muslims. Far from any town, we could see the terraced farm plots below, while wind towers dotted the horizon like white toothpicks. I was thinking about my family back home -- my wife and others who were caring for my ailing mother-in-law, who was in her final months of life.

Outside the bus window, a burst of color flashed by. I looked out the back, and it was a slow-moving vehicle we had just passed, with some people walking alongside. We rounded a turn and the scene was gone. It had been a flatbed truck hauling something long and narrow swathed in red, blue and yellow wrapping. In front and behind walked a dozen or so people toting streamers or banners of similar colors. A protest? A mini-parade?

What was that? I asked our interpreter.

"A funeral procession," she said. "The family is taking the body to be buried somewhere, probably on the mountainside. They will use feng shui to find the right place, maybe a spot near other family members."

Elsewhere in Yunnan, people are buried on the family farm. As we drove by cultivated fields, many tended by a solitary farmer with a hoe or rake, the rows of crops were punctuated by an arched stone structure, a crude tomb the size of a small hut. The interpreter said some Chinese want their remains to be near the soil they tilled, in the presence of those who will tend the farm after them.

Hong Kong can be dazzling in its high-rise density and Western-style prosperity, but the U.S. journalists were also struck by a weekly phenomenon involving the city's domestic workers, most of them women from the Philippines who cook, clean and take care of children and the elderly.

Sunday is their day off and most of them spend it outdoors with other domestic workers. They congregate in large numbers, on covered sidewalks and under building overhangs. Hundreds sit on sheets of cardboard, with cardboard dividers between groups of friends who talk, play cards or nap.

To visiting Americans, they look like a colony of people who are homeless or a mass of protesters at a sit-in. Yet none was belligerent or tawdry; no one was panhandling. These were people with jobs, many of whom, we were told, send money back home. We asked Hong Kong's leaders why the city doesn't provide a place for them to congregate.

Jasper Tsang, president of the legislative council, said the city has 200,000 domestic workers. "Government would not think of building any kind of community centers because they would have to accommodate so many people and they would be used only on Sunday," he said. "This has developed slowly over the years. To many of us, it doesn't seem to be a problem."

Our trip concluded with two days of meetings in Honolulu (I know -- rough duty) with seven Chinese journalists who had visited New York, Washington and Chicago while we were in China. It gave us a chance to compare notes on our respective countries. The Chinese didn't think much of American food. Too rich, too many sauces, too fattening, they said. They were amazed at how little smoking they encountered (whereas we found it pervasive in China) and they wanted to know how the United States had eradicated most of it. Too bad you can't do the same with obesity, one of them said.

We discussed at length our ability as journalists to question, scrutinize, even investigate the behavior of government officials, especially when corruption was involved. The Chinese, despite the fact that they face censors and Internet-jamming by the government, insisted that they had comparable press freedom. They admitted, though, that the two cultures treat national leaders differently. In the United States, it's nothing for the president to appear on a late-night comedy show and poke fun at himself. That is not the case in China.

One of the American journalists had purchased a souvenir in Hawaii, where President Barack Obama spent part of his childhood. It was a bobblehead doll showing the wide-grinned president in swim trunks and on a surf board. She passed the toy around the meeting room for the Chinese to see. They smiled at the Obama head bouncing up and down, then one of them said, "We could never do this in our country."


Tom Waseleski is editorial page editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1422).


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