For Old Times' Sake

Recently installed in Beijing, I was composing a note of thanks to the fourth week's crew of guest bloggers, just finishing their stint, and a welcome their successors. I'll do that in a little while, to appear by Sunday night U.S. time.

But a Sunday afternoon look outside the window, in the same Guomao district where we lived from 2007 to 2009, instantly brought back, madeleine-style, a whole past life. We're on a lower floor than before, and looking eastward toward the Fourth Ring Road rather than south along the Third as we used to, but here is Beijing as we often saw and remembered it. A view east along the south side of Jianguo Road, 2pm, February 20, 2011:

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Out of curiosity, I checked the "BeijingAir" Twitter feed that had started up when we lived here. Chinese authorities don't report levels of "PM2.5," the smallest particulate pollutants that are most health-damaging because they go deepest into the lungs. The BeijingAir site, whose very interesting history you can follow here, does report PM2.5. This is what it showed at the time of that photo:
For reference, an Air Quality Index (AQI) reading above 300 for PM2.5 is classified as "hazardous" by the US Environmental Protection Agency. From 201 to 300 is merely "very unhealthy." Outside right now it is 485.

No cattiness here: it is genuinely exciting to be back in the activity, bustle, chaos, and promise that is modern China. And this is certainly the right setting in which to be writing about developments here. But a view like this is also reminder number 1.3 billion of the gap between the all-conquering Chinese superstate described in much of the Western press and the realities in which so many Chinese people live. 

UPDATE: The 3pm reading is over 500, "beyond index." But at least the Ozone level is good!

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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