Thanks to a link we posted on Weibo about our blog on Beijing’s record day of pollution, the editorial staff at The World of Chinese were invited by the producers of the popular TV talk show “Tiger Talks” (一虎一席谈，Yìhǔ Yìxí Tán)to discuss Beijing’s pollutants. 24 hours later, after a long and arduous subway ride to the penultimate stop at the western end of line one, we made it to the studio in the nick of time. The next thing we knew, our two new interns Anna, Rachael, and myself found ourselves being placed in the front row. I had suspected this would be the seating arrangement, since we are foreign faces and it would add to the diversity factor for the show. Across from us, at the other side of the studio, we noticed that they had moved a number of people out of the front row to make way for a tall European woman and a tall Asian man, Lucile and Hank, whom we later met.
The host’s casually-dressed assistant then picked up the mike and started interacting with us before going live. She made sure everyone had a paddle that on one side had 赞成 (zànchéng，Support) and on the other 反对 (Oppose， fǎnduì). She gave us a few tips about the paddles such as the higher you raised them and the more you waived them from side to side, the more attention you would get. You could get even more attention if you did it in a group. The point of getting attention was getting a chance to have the microphone passed to you and presumably your chance of getting that coveted 15 seconds of fame. We were advised to stand up when called on so we wouldn’t be blocked by the special guests. She warned us we could be captured by the camera at any moment, so she advised us to make sure that we always had our best foot forward and didn’t do anything embarrassing like picking our nose.
One of the special guests was running late, so she warmed up the audience by posing questions singling out some that had raised their paddle in support or opposition. I was quickly selected as she discovered I could speak Chinese and the first time around she asked me where I was from and what the air was like there. I said, “I said I’m from the US and the air is a lot cleaner.” For some reason the crowd laughed. I went on to explain that during this latest pollution crisis, I felt itching in my eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and throat and gestured to each orifice. The crowd laughed again.
The assistant asked if anyone in the audience had a different kind of mask than the one she was holding. I was hoping to show off my expensive, imported Respro Sportsta pollution mask, but Hank beat me to the punch by showing off his 3m N95 mask he had bought on Amazon. She later called on me again and asked if there was much pollution in the US and if there were any effective measures being taken to reduce it. I said that there were many places with severe pollution such as Los Angeles, but that now all drivers are required to have their cars inspected to determine whether or not they meet smog limits. Also, that there is a carpool lane in which only cars with two or three people can use during rush hour. This is because most cars usually have just one person in each car, so if they can encourage carpooling it can make a direct impact on pollution and congestion.
She then tried to work the crowd into a frenzy by having everyone practice the slogan and applaud enthusiastically afterwards. She would yell “一虎一席!” （yìhǔ yìxí）and we would respond “有话`大谈！”（yǒu huà dà tán） We rehearsed this about three times before she was satisfied. The last special guest finally appeared, the lights flashed frenetically and Tiger then leaped on the scene sporting a cardigan sweater and a neatly quaffed hairdo. He said his catch phrase and then everyone responded in kind, and applauded on cue. Tiger (胡一虎) was born and raised in Gaoxiong, Taiwan and he started his career as a TV news anchorman on Taiwanese TV. In 2001, he started his current stint on Pheonix TV, a privately owned TV station based in Hong Kong.
The stage was arranged with audience members in raised seats situated in a semi circle on two sides, kind of like a miniature American football stadium. In the middle were two pairs of podiums facing each other where most of the fighting would take place. In this case, on the left was Dou Hanzhang (窦含章), chief editor of Internet public opinion research from the Communication University of China and Li Su (李肃), CEO of Hejun Vanguard Group. On the right was Han Xiaoping (韩晓平), head consultant of China5e.com and Zhao Zhangyuan (赵章元), researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences. There was another pair of podiums on stage right with Chao Shuyi (晁淑懿), who was a meteorologist from the National Meteorological Center of China. Standing next to her was, Li Liang (李亮) from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On stage left was Tiger’s podium where he orchestrates the show.
The Fireworks Begin Tiger quickly cut to the chase and asked the various guests what their reaction was to the most recent cataclysmic pollution event. Han Xiaoping responded that this was the “worst episode of pollution in the history of China.” He claims to have developed the ever-present “Beijing Cough” (北京咳,Běijīng Ké) since moving to the city. He believes that the government must do more to improve the air, and that ordinary people can’t do this on their own. He’s seen many instances of blatant disregard of pollution laws and no sign of enforcement. Recently when we spotted city workers burning trash outside of the 5th ring road, he called the government environmental protection agency but never got a satisfactory response.
Chao Shuyi explained day-by-day with a series of color coded sattelite images how the fog conspired with coal, cars, and dust to create the biggest pollution storm ever seen by man over much of eastern China. It wasn’t until colder air started to finally blow in that the pollution started to dissipate. She predicts that such events will occur again in the future and that we must work together on preventing pollution.
Zhao Zhangyuan said that he believed the situation would continue to worsen as the sources of pollution are only going to increase in time. He took the stance that the government must take action, but it should be done gradually over time, incrementally. These problems will not be resolved easily and it will take both government intervention and the cooperation of the people to succeed.
Dou Hanzhang compared to everyone else was a pro. He could counter even the most factual statement with overwhelming counter logic. The veins in his neck bulged as he vociferously countered that it’s questionable whether this recent episode was in fact the worse pollution ever. Regardless, it is the city dweller’s responsibility for having driven cars and burned coal indirectly for the heat and power they consume. It is the cost of modernity and prosperity. In reference to Obama’s assertion that all Chinese cannot reach America’s standard of living because of the environmental cost it would incur, he asked the audience if any of them would be willing to accept a lower standard of living than Americans to save the environment. He felt the solution would be to create more smaller cities instead of a few megacities, and that existing laws should be enforced more, rather than pass new laws. Much of the time he opened his mouth, a sea of black 反对 paddles would appear en masse.
Li Su said that the giant dust storms that strike Beijing every spring are just as much of a threat to the air as any man-made pollution and that this whole hubub about PM 2.5 was overblown. He felt that people shouldn’t make GDP the enemy and they shouldn’t sacrifice growth for this unrealistic, western pollution standards.
Li Liang countered that 2.5 is much worse than the dust from the dust storms because it penetrates deep into your lungs. He then showed disturbing scans of lungs with a large amount of 2.5 inside them compared to normal lungs. He also presented charts showing that regular masks only filter out about 20% of the pollution while the N95 masks filter about 80%.