I can tell you the skies in Beijing were dark the day Grandfather passed away, even though I was on the other side of the globe, because the skies in Beijing are dark almost every day. Grandfather left Beijing shortly after the buildings on the horizon disappeared. Even after he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease with no known cure or treatment, he was still a very active man, and stubbornly so. He ate what he wanted, which was very little, drank what he wanted, which was always Coca-cola, and did what he wanted, which included leaving the apartment without telling any of us and arguing with every taxi driver we met. He was unwilling to change the ways he had followed for years, and thus insisted on buying three newspapers every morning and buying groceries from a little farmer’s market instead of a store.
Yet he invested all of his savings in the stock market, for he was confident that China’s economy would not fall within the next few years. He was right, but he never was able to see the results of his risky investment. The journey of 10 blocks to the stock exchange quickly became too much a toll on him. Every breath of polluted air he sucked in made him cough and choke. At the beginning of the summer, he could manage for hours without the oxygen tank, but by the end, he kept his oxygen tube on almost all the time. With every passing day, the coal-powered factories in the nearby areas churned out more toxins, which were then trapped within central China’s rugged terrain.
From the moment I walked out of the airport two summers ago, I knew something was different about the land of my ancestors. This was not the Beijing I knew from two years ago. It was three in the afternoon, yet where was the sun to accompany the sweltering heat? From the exact same window of my aunt’s apartment where I used to spend silent evenings enjoying the view, I could barely see the silhouettes of the buildings one block down. And then I noticed the number of cars on the road. I used to boast to my friends about how you almost never saw a private car in China. It was all buses, taxis, or bikes. But now there are BMWs, shiny and black, like the typical corporate cars of America, and new colorful, metallic cars, demeaning the older, red Toyota taxis that used to dominate the roads. It seemed as if the air was stifled, no, suffocated, by this blanket of industrial smog. About a week into my visit, the skies exploded with a grand rainstorm, and in its aftermath, a true gift from heaven: blue skies and white clouds. But, like rainbows, it only lasted a few hours, and then the skies returned to the beige-grey I had become accustomed to.
The “Backwards East” as the Western World used to call it no longer seems backwards. Japan rivals the US in almost every aspect, China has hosted its first Olympic Games in the most splendid show of culture and strength thus far, and Southeast Asian countries have formed ASEAN, an economic league. Asia is undergoing its Industrial Revolution, and its markets prove it. However, like the 19th century revolution in Europe and the U.S., much expansion has gone on without government regulation. The problem is the population of China exceeds 1 billion, compared to the US which in 1870 held only about 35 million. China’s previously stagnant economy, which only in recent years has rocketed upwards, has grown accustomed to little to no regulation. And thus, recent government encouragement to create more environmentally friendly industrial techniques are much harder to adapt. And in turn, the people suffer. Already, we see the effects of unclean, mass production. The water is dirty, and the air is unfit for living. Health concerns over the state of the environment are rising, and the government is struggling to respond accordingly. China, in others’ eyes, and most importantly, her own, suffers.
Have we come over 100 years into the future, only to see a repeat of environmental horror happen on a larger scale? The answer must be a resounding no. This problem is not isolated in China alone either; India, another rapidly growing country, is facing similar industrial advances and environmental problems. Because of China’s large population, it would be a death sentence to the world if each Chinese citizen were producing the same amount of greenhouse gases as every American does. This is not an individual pursuit for glory by one country; this is a test the world has been called upon to take. The “flaming hell” that steel city Pittsburgh was compared to, does not need to be heard again in China, India, or anywhere else. This is a fight by all of humanity, not just by developing countries who struggle to advance.
My grandfather, just one of the billion of citizens in China, bore the smog and cloudy skies so that his grandchildren can look to their country of heritage with pride. He was a proud man, to say the least, and had high expectations for his family. He loved his country, having experienced all of its bloody turmoil in the last 8 decades, and always reminded me of how well the economy was progressing. He saw the younger generation of China emerging as a modern, successful generation modeled after American entrepreneurs. China is no longer synonymous with Western apprehension, and the poisonous word “communism.” Instead in the Western world it is viewed as a rising power, neither a threat nor a subordinate, but as one rapidly obtaining equal status. I hold my head high for my heritage, and in the hopes that we, as the new generation, will lead China, and the world, into a new era of cleaner technological advancement. For I know, as he was one who felt the polluted air with every labored breath, Grandfather would approve.