China's Air Pollution Is Prompting Middle Class Activism : Parallels Severe air pollution in China has forced some city-dwellers, especially parents, to respond in ways that would have seemed unthinkable in the past. Some are moving elsewhere; others turn to activism.

For Some In China's Middle Class, Pollution Is Spurring Action

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you've been to China, you know it's not unusual to see people walking around with face masks to protect themselves from all the polluted air. The Chinese have been coping with pollution for years. What is notable now is how many members of China's growing urban middle class are taking action. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Lan Yanfei is one of the ones who decided to flee. She made the decision in 2013 when her son was 3 years old. She says that he got sick several times that year, each time during a period of heavy smog. Beijing offers some of the best career prospects, education and other resources in the country, but Lan says she decided to put her son's health first.

LAN YANFEI: (Through interpreter) He's still so young. His body's still growing, and the harm the pollution does to him might be permanent.

KUHN: Lan and her family moved first to Yunnan province in the southwest and later to Shenzhen city in the south, both of which have better air than Beijing. She says she feels strongly that she made the right choice.

LAN: (Through interpreter) Frankly, it's because I had no confidence that Beijing would clean up its smog even in 20 or 30 years.


LAN: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: Lan was featured in a print and video report last year by a state-run media outlet. The story was about three mothers and their choices. One barricaded the family in their home and cranked up the air purifiers. A third organized other parents to test air quality in public places and published the results online to raise awareness. The report caused a stir before government censors erased it from the internet. And that, Lan Yanfei says, is exactly why she made her choice.

LAN: (Through interpreter) How are we going to clean up the pollution when we're not even allowed to talk about it?

KUHN: Not everyone has been silenced. One local father, Shen Kui, says the pollution was also making his child sick and his wife depressed. He recently filed a freedom of information request to find out exactly what was causing the pollution.

SHEN KUI: (Through interpreter) As a father, I felt I had to take responsibility and do something, do what I could to help clean up the smog.

KUHN: Shen teaches law at Beijing University.

SHEN: (Through interpreter) I felt I should put my teaching into action, file this request and, through it, push our government to be more transparent and accountable.

KUHN: The government didn't exactly answer Shen's question. That might seem to suggest that there's not much ordinary Chinese can do about the situation. But independent analyst Wu Qiang says they're actually already putting a lot of pressure on the government.

WU QIANG: (Through interpreter) We can see that the government is very nervous about smog and about the rising power of the middle class.

KUHN: Wu points out that in December, mostly middle class residents protested smog in the streets of southwest Chengdu city. This made police there so nervous that they started detaining anyone who was wearing a face mask on a smoggy day. At the same time, Wu observes that Chinese urban families are especially fragile and vulnerable to health threats like smog because for most of the past four decades, the government has limited them to having just one child. As for Lan Yanfei, she says the only thing she regrets about her decision is that she can't yet properly explain it to her child.

LAN: (Through interpreter) I hope that when he grows up, my son won't blame me for taking him away from Beijing because to a mother's mind, her child's health always comes first.

KUHN: Her other hope is that more parents like her can break free of the smog and see blue skies.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.


Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.