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There are No Clean Air Cities In China

There are no clean air cities in China, regardless of the optimism. I came to Xiamen island for the clear skies, and the smog followed.

I was taken in by the claims that there are “clean air cities” in China. Every once in a while the Chinese media comes out with lists of cities with the best air quality in the country, and I bit. I put in the research and came up with roughly five cities sizable enough to offer job opportunities for my wife that have relatively clean air.

By relative, I mean relative to China, not most of the world.

To get out of the smog of the Yangtze River region I moved my family to Xiamen. I thought that I was real smart for a while as the air was clean blue on most days. I would take trips around to other parts of the country, swim through their smog, and then return to this island off the coast of Fujian province with a sigh of relief.

Then the smog followed.

Winter is the worst season for air pollution in China. It’s when housing complexes and even entire villages in the north of the country fire up their coal powered central heating furnaces and cold, stagnant layers of air trap in the adulterated air.

This winter even the “clean air” cities are being hit. Sanya, which is on Hainan island dangling off southern China next to Vietnam, was taken by surprise when thick smog hit for the first time. Zhuhai and Shenzhen — coastal cities which often have clean(er) air regardless of the fact that they’re located within a major manufacturing corridor have also been posting atypically high PM2.5 levels. And Xiamen is also being caked.

The air here is hitting between 150 – 170, which is considered pretty good in most of the country. In Taizhou, Jiangsu this was considered normal as the readings regularly spiked over three hundred. And three hundred can be considered normal in some other parts of the country. Though the fact remains that 150 – 170 air is not clean. Besides Kunming and a few population centers in the mountains, perhaps, there truly are no clean air cities in China.

Watch a video of Xiamen’s air pollution

Watch a video of the air quality in Jiangsu Taizhou from last January for comparison

Get a mask

More photos

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Filed under: China, Pollution

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3400 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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13 comments… add one

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  • André Vieira January 10, 2014, 10:59 am

    Scary stuff.

    Amazing how greediness can make us forget our own health!

    Good reading.

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    • Wade Shepard January 10, 2014, 9:26 pm

      For sure. It’s interesting where this is going to go — where the breaking point will be or if there is even one.

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  • Steve579 January 30, 2014, 8:00 am

    Whenever I have a bad air day in Shanghai, opening up the map on Aqicn.org shows just how terrible it is in the northern China plains south of Beijing, giving me some perspective. Places like Baoding or Shijiazhuang look pretty unlivable. Much of the winter is spent over 500 AQI there, with occasional spikes into the 700 plus range during inversions, and 1000+ during the dust storms in early Spring. Meanwhile the same site also shows the rest of Asia. If a cold front pushes the smoke out of China you can see the readings spike in western Japan, and even places in the open ocean like Okinawa. While there are definitely pockets of air pollution in other parts of the world they never span such a huge area. A bad air day in China easily covers half the country and is inescapable even after hours on a plane, smoke smothers the entire half of the country regardless of where the pollution is actually generated. Sad to see that the smog blanket can reach Sanya on occasion.

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    • Wade Shepard January 30, 2014, 8:04 pm

      Haha, for sure, I try to make myself feel better doing that as well.

      Yes, this is the remarkable thing here: the smog is no longer localized to big cities or major manufacturing zones. It goes everywhere, and it can get bad almost everywhere. It’s startling how one of the biggest countries on earth can virtually be covered in smog so thick you can hardly see the buildings in front of you. Have to wonder where the limit is, or if there’s one.

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  • Oksana March 19, 2014, 3:02 am

    Too bad, I was thinking about moving to Xiamen from Shanghai. Last time we were in Xiamen, about 4 years ago, it seemed clean and green. Thanks for the update

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  • Stephanie March 25, 2014, 5:42 pm

    You know Kunming is really smoggy, right? The mountains ringing it trap the smog.

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  • Dante May 15, 2014, 10:14 am

    Yes, living in Xiamen, I can say that the winter was smoggy. Now the rate is around 150…

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    • VagabondJourney May 15, 2014, 10:21 am

      True, it’s generally not too bad.

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  • flyerphil July 21, 2015, 6:28 am

    Oh damn. It looks like I bit too. I have just applied to Xiamen University of Technology for a job, thinking it was OK for air pollution. Seems I was wrong. Last year I was offered a job teaching high school physics in Zhangzhou but turned it down because of the terrible air.

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney July 21, 2015, 10:37 am

      This video was shot on a particularly bad day. The smog is like weather, there are good and bad days and better and worse seasons. This video was shot during the winter where air pollution is at its worse.

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      • flyerphil July 22, 2015, 1:39 pm

        Does not matter now. Seems I am too old at 60 – in any country

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        • VagabondJourney July 22, 2015, 2:55 pm

          True. There are age restrictions on the official route. You can always just show up and get work. Let me know if you want a two year business visa.

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          • flyerphil July 23, 2015, 11:53 am

            Tell me more !
            I would like to come to China. My email address is phil@pcrobinson.co.uk please contact me and we can discuss options. Thanks.

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