An article published last fall in the New York Times carried the title “The Privileges of China’s Elite Include Purified Air,” briefly examining some of the differences in the lives of the ordinary Chinese people and the Chinese elite. Since then—among the Bo Xilai scandal, the escape of the blind dissident Ai Wei Wei, and other media debacles—but a common theme running through the unfolding drama in China has been the gradual exposure and humiliation of a government upper-class whose very existence both underpins, and is ideologically at odds with, the prevailing philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party.
The list of amenities that can be accessed only by the elite includes things like special schools, organic vegetables and premier hospitals. But recently the list has been expanded to include purified air.
As other humbling and problematic national or international incidents have ticked through the 24 hour news cycle here in America, draining a few more ounces of credibility from the CCP every time they were broadcast, my mind has returned again and again to the story of Chinese oxygen bars. Even the air the people breathe—such a seemingly basic and universal—is another site of disparity in China, one of the most polluted countries in the world.
The purified air is created by air purifiers that have been placed in the office buildings and homes of many of China’s richest and most powerful citizens. These purifiers, which are created by The Broad Group, cost an average of $2,000 each. This price is unfortunately too expensive for most of the population of that county. However, due to the horrible air quality in the capital city, these purifiers are a necessity for most people.
Unfortunately, the elite are able to get such an essential product, but the poor and middle class are essentially denied access to it. The gap between the elite members of the Communist party and the average citizen has long been accepted in China. The promotional material that is circulated by the Broad Group mirrors that acceptance when it states the following: “Creating clean, healthy air for our national leaders is a blessing to the people.”
The promotional material also carries endorsements from many of China’s top officials. Long Yongtu, one of the country’s top economic officials believes the purifiers to be so essential that he brings them on car journeys. He claims, “Breathing clean air is a basic human need.”
A comment like this rings discordant in a situation where the basic human need of breathing clean air is not being met. This dissonance is being felt by many of the government’s biggest critics. Multiple postings on some of the country’s most popular microblogs assert the following in relation to the gap between the rich and the poor: “They don’t have to eat gutter oil or drink poisoned milk powder and now they’re protected from filthy air,” Another post claimed, “This shows their indifference to the lives of ordinary people.”
In America, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing according to many analysts, and a critical reader could easily read an article like this as a forewarning for what could happen if that gap was allowed to continue unchecked. However, the central difference between China and America and one of the main reasons that the gap will never get that large is the free access that Americans have to information.
The people in China may not be that upset about the rich breathing clean air because they simply do not realize how dirty the air they are breathing really is. A monitoring device on the top of the American embassy regularly reads the air quality in the Chinese capital. These readings contrast the readings that are published by the Chinese government. The main difference in the readings stems from the fact that the American monitoring device detects very small particles while the Chinese reading is based on larger air particles. However, the small particles are truly the most dangerous ones.
In America, most citizens can easily investigate air quality by checking a website or looking for a news releases. Once they find the air quality reading in their area, they can trust it’s accurate and that no one is hiding details from them. If they’re concerned about their air, they can simply buy an affordable air filter online.
As Long Yongtu stated, breathing clean air is a basic human need, and luckily, we can meet that need in the United States. By maintaining free and reliable access to our air quality readings, we effectively take steps that help us to avoid getting into a situation like the one that is currently happening in China. However, we should always be vigilant in our maintenance of free access to information. This is one of the keystones that keeps us free.