By Yan Shuang (Global Times)
April 18, 2013
The Makeevs are leaving Beijing this summer. It was a tough decision for the family to make. They’ve lived here for a decade and have grown attached to the capital’s ways, its oddities and its quirks.
But the air pollution, amid a number of concerns, finally became too much for the Russian couple after giving birth to a baby girl last September.
In their home near the East Fourth Ring Road across from Chaoyang Park, the couple stays at home as much as possible on heavily polluted days. Their air purifier runs around the clock, windows stay closed and masks are a must when they do go out.
“Beijing’s air got worse in the last year, and this winter was especially bad,” said Makeev, who runs an export business in Beijing.
The heavy smog that blanketed eastern parts of China for much of the winter triggered international attention to China’s air pollution issue, especially in the capital where some 200,000 expatriates reside.
The US embassy’s air quality index classified pollution levels as “beyond the index” several times in January. However, the official index put out by environmental authorities, which usually stands in contrast to the US embassy data, also showed in parts of Beijing that the pollution levels were too high to be read at monitoring stations.
– Staying away –
“We feel drowsy, we get headaches, we cough. We even noticed differences in the baby’s behavior, as she gets cranky and doesn’t sleep well,” Makeev said. He explained that in Russia, it’s common to spend at least two to three hours daily outside to let babies get fresh air.
Besides air pollution, Makeev also worries about food and water quality. The comfortable and cheap cocoon that lured many expats to Beijing is cracking. Rents are up, high prices are being charged for low-quality products and traffic is an ever-worsening chore, he said. The increasingly evident wealth gap is also making him uncomfortable.
In pursuit of better climate and business opportunities, the couple has decided to leave for Malaysia soon.
Makeev’s worries are shared among many in the expat community in Beijing, and the couple are not the only ones planning on leaving.
There were at least two high-profile cases of foreigners asking to be repatriated in January, when PM2.5 readings in Beijing climbed to over 800, said Max Price, a partner at Antal International China office, a global executive recruitment corporation. A PM2.5 reading over 500 is already considered serious pollution.
Price told the Global Times that a high-ranking lawyer and a senior technical professional working for two German automobile companies respectively insisted on being repatriated to their original countries and left.
“When I speak to my international colleagues, their first questions are never about how business is going or how I am doing personally. They always ask about the pollution,” he said. “It’s really something I never experienced before.”
When speaking to people as a recruiter, quality of life used to be the third question following the actual duties of the job and the salary, but now it has jumped to second on the list, Price said, adding that this mainly happens with people with families.
A lot of foreigners who are keen on staying in China are turning their attention toward second-tier or third-tier cities, as these have increased employment options and better air quality, said Price.
The recent H7N9 bird flu outbreak has also come to complicate matters.
“A lack of communication and a limited number of reports have made people fear the worse and compare it with the SARS outbreak 10 years ago,” he said, noting that these aspects are making Beijing and Shanghai less attractive than other Chinese cities to expats.
Although there is no official data on how many foreigners are leaving Beijing or tourists staying away for fear of the pollution, the Beijing municipal tourism data showed a slump of foreign visitors in February and March this year compared to 2012.
According to the statistics, Beijing saw 165,000 foreign visitors in February, 37 percent less than last year…
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