As living with toxic air becomes part of people’s mundane daily lives during the winter in northern and central China’s cities, it’s inevitable that the entrepreneurial exuberance of many urban residents will find ways to commodify the right of breathing clean air, turning it into a privilege. The privatization of clean air has followed an initial spate of creative efforts to draw attention to the absurdities of air pollution in China. First there was celebrity philanthropist Chen Guangbiao selling cans of ‘fresh air’ in Beijing in 2013 for 5 yuan each. The brightly colored cans came in several ‘flavors’: Taiwan, Tibet, Yan’an (thus suggesting a link, perhaps, between the right of the Chinese people to breath clean air and the rightness of China’s claims of territorial sovereignty, with the Yan’an flavor linking that right to China’s revolutionary heritage).
Then tourism officials in places like Fujian and Guizhou started offering canned fresh air as a marketing gimmick. Guizhou’s effort was apparently inspired by Xi Jinping himself. When meeting with a Guizhou delegation in March of 2014, Xi marveled at Guizhou’s healthy air (where the average PM2.5 count seldom exceeds 50), and commented that “air quality is now a deciding factor in people’s perception of happiness.” And then there’s Beijing artist Liang Kegang who, upon returning from France, auctioned off a jar of air he collected in Provence for $860. More recently, ‘Brother Nut’ entertained us with his 100-day “Project Dust” in which he vacuumed up and condensed into a single brick Beijing’s putrid air.
None of these cases can be called entrepreneurial though. They were either marketing and branding gimmicks or clever ways of bringing attention to the absurd levels of air pollution that have become a normal part of daily urban life. Residents of Beijing talk about the ups and downs of air pollution the way we might discuss the stock market, or interest rates. That PM2.5 has become part of the mundane language of daily life in much or urban China is, indeed, absurd.
But a line was seemingly crossed – between creatively generating public awareness and plain-old privatization – when a Jiangsu restaurant was recently found to be adding a 1 yuan ‘clean air fee’ to diners’ bills. The local government, claiming that clean air was a basic right and not a privilege, requested that the restaurant retract the fee, which it has apparently done. As reported in the New York Times, a debate ensued on social media in which commentators were “divided between those contending that clean air is a basic right, not a commodity, and those who countered that the restaurant incurred costs to install purifiers to clean the air and is thus entitled to charge for that service.”
Meanwhile, canning fresh air has moved from social statement to lucrative business model. Vitality Air, a Canadian company founded in 2014 by Moses Lam and Troy Paquette, is blithely selling “the best and the freshest necessity of life” with absolutely no sense of irony or shame. The company sells “fresh air” from Banff or Lake Louise, with 3 liter cans starting at CA$19. Vitality Air is available in China via Taobao, and the cans, which cost up to 400 yuan each, are selling out as soon as they’re posted online.
While residents of Beijing have for years expressed resentment regarding the inequalities in air purification – noting, for example, that China’s leaders breath filtered air in their Zhongnanhai residences and offices – it is increasingly clear that a market does exist for clean air, and that air filtration (or purchasing canned air from Canada) is becoming a mark of class privilege in China. Being able to avoid the negative effects of PM2.5 has become a sign of status. Pond’s, for example, has developed a line of PM2.5-fighting beauty products. A study by Samuel Kay et al published earlier this year in The Professional Geographer emphasized that air pollution is still viewed in China as a scientific, rather than a political, problem. China’s ‘atmospheric governance,’ they maintain, is meant to maintain the political status quo. It does this by making local leaders responsible (“devolving responsibility for pollution reduction to governors, mayors, and state-owned enterprises”) encouraging local leaders to bend the rules, falsify reports, conceal major pollution sources.
But Kay et al also point out that the insertion of PM2.5 awareness into people’s everyday lives has created a new privatized space to be filled with the commodification of clean air. This space thrives on the internet:
“Companies that sell air filters and real estate developers who sell buildings with filtered air are obvious candidates for posting air pollution advertisements in the microblogosphere, but they are hardly alone in the rush to profit from pollution.”
They argue that the commercialization of air quality dampens the ‘democratizing’ qualities of the internet, whereby social media is used – as was the case during the US Embassy’s PM2.5 monitoring dustup of 2013 – to pressure the government for increased transparency and accountability regarding air pollution. The internet, they point out is dominated not by the civic-minded seeking to hold government and industry accountable, but rather by businesses seeking to capitalize on the privatization of clean air.