The Other Big Problem Caused by China’s Pollution

China is hazardous to your health, so experts and diplomats are hesitant to go there.

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 file photo, a man wears a mask on Tiananmen Square in thick haze in Beijing. China, one of the most visited countries in the world, has seen sharply fewer tourists this year, with worsening air pollution partly to blame.

The People's Republic of China's environmental meltdown continues to degrade the country's air, soil and water – and may now be corroding the West's understanding of China itself. Despite a recent HSBC's survey that ranked China as a top place for expatriates to work, the country's environmental woes may now be driving sympathetic, sophisticated foreigners to reconsider actually living there.

If these individuals – factory managers, businessmen, teachers, academics, consultants, midlevel diplomats – indeed vote with their feet, this will fundamentally degrade our long-term understanding about China, causing all sorts of cultural and political problems.

I write from personal experience. As a former U.S. government analyst, but now one with a young family, I could not in good conscience relocate to a country where the air is frequently "very unhealthy" or "hazardous." Deliberately exposing my infant daughter's little lungs to the soot, grit and sulfur dioxide present in the air would make me a negligent parent. In my conversations with present and former China watchers, this same reluctance to engage too deeply in China because of health hazards sadly animates our discussions.

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Nonetheless, it's difficult to maintain a level of expertise in a language or culture if you never visit there; this is the dilemma many "China hands" in the prime of their working years face. And these are exactly the foreign "thinkers" and "doers" China needs in order to grow into a global player and avoid international misunderstandings.

The pollution impacts China's relations with the diplomats stationed in the country. Diplomats with children will no longer view Beijing (and other Chinese cities like Guangdong or Chengdu) as desirable places to work, which means the global diplomatic corps will attempt to be posted elsewhere for their careers. After all, most embassy and consular personnel still want to breathe or go jogging or play with their kids outdoors. While the die-hard China experts in the diplomatic corps will still serve in the People's Republic, the various posts may not receive the best overall international diplomats, further imperiling sophisticated government-to-government relationships.

The U.S. Embassy is trying to offset this by offering a 15 percent increase in income for its diplomats to live in Beijing for "hardship" reasons; in other cities, the pay is even higher. And perhaps it should be, since living in northern China will lop off over half a decade of your life because of the pollution.

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China's – especially Beijing's – terrible environmental problems are now also impacting the country's relationship across business and media spaces. For example, German car manufacturer BMW is having trouble finding qualified mid-level employees to work in China because news about the pollution caused families to no longer support the move. The New York Times' Beijing correspondent openly mused whether living in China is risking his nine-month old daughter's health – and whether his prestigious job is worth the damage. And a global human resources firm's principal consultant noted in April "air quality is one of the most negative things about living in Beijing, especially for families with children … It's all you hear about every day."

Obviously, expatriate organizations that cater to families are doing their best to live with the present environmental reality: it's commonplace to purchase expensive air filtration systems just to live in China. Some schools are taking drastic steps: the International School of Beijing and the Dulwich College Beijing have both built large, pressurized air-filtrating dome-systems over their athletic fields. Even the International School's stairwells are pressurized to fight pollution.

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In the end, however, the corruption in the air, water, and land will reduce the overall number of competent Westerners willing to invest years of patience and in-country experience required to "know" China. Driving away these future mid-level scholars, workers, businessmen, diplomats, and academics – people with children – will only exacerbate the West's misperceptions of China, and vice versa.

Thus, China might be inadvertently creating its own "expertise" gap in the West. And this would be a pity, since those ignorant of China will then control the West's discourse, resorting to caricature and crude stereotype to explain why China acts and behaves the way it does. This long-term dynamic will not be good for our country – or for theirs. It will only make the world more politically toxic, much like the grey sludge that Beijingers call "the air."

Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda." 

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