Society

Ironic air

Smog inspires wave of jokes

CHINA-LNG/TRANSPORT

Don’t lose your sense of humour

Back in December, when China’s smog levels wafted their way to record highs, the state-run broadcaster CCTV tried to put a positive spin on the situation with a feature titled “Five Surprising Benefits From China’s Haze”.

According to CCTV, the choking air may be bad for health, but it has upsides, including making people feel more united.

Haze “is everywhere,” CCTV agreed, from “every big city” to “small cities, towns, and villages”. Everybody – rich or poor – is rendered equal in the face of air pollution, the broadcaster pointed out.

Moreover, people are funnier when they are forced to contend with deadly smog, CCTV suggested. It then listed a number of smog-related wisecracks, including: “The farthest distance is not life and death. It is when we hold hands on the street – and I can’t see you.”

Gallows humour was on display again in Beijing last week as the capital was shrouded once more in a dense bank of filthy air. For the first time since it introduced an emergency smog alert system in October, the city government also issued an “orange alert”, its second-highest warning level. The air quality indices for the past week were all above 300, which implies substantial risks to health.

But CCTV was right about one thing. The smog has been inspiring netizens to poke fun at the challenges of living in such awful conditions.

One online joke goes: “I was just listening to the radio and one man called the host complaining that the smog has made it impossible to see the traffic lights in Beijing. In fact, he lamented that he had run several red lights because it had become so hard to see. The host tries to comfort him: ‘Don’t worry: in this fog no one will see your licence plate!’”

Another netizen imagines what it must be like to be a doctor in the capital: “Two doctors look depressingly at the smog outside the window. One says, ‘How is one supposed to live with this kind of pollution?’ Another replies: ‘I know. With air like this, all the patients whose cataracts I’ve cured will open their eyes and think their surgeries have failed!’”

Behind the attempts at humour, anger is brewing too. Last Tuesday, more than 20 artists gathered outside the Beijing Temple of Heaven to ‘pray’ for blue sky, Beijing Times reports. (Images soon went viral online, with netizens labelling it as a demonstration; some were amazed the event was allowed, given how quickly the authorities usually disperse protests at Beijing landmarks.)

Li Guixin, a resident of Shijiazhuang from Hebei province, has even sued the local government for failing to curb increasingly horrendous smog in his hometown.

The lawsuit, filed in a district court, accuses the city’s environmental protection bureau of not doing its job. Li is seeking Rmb10,000 ($1,600) in compensatation for money spent to protect himself against the foul air.

“Since last December, the smog in Shijiazhuang started to get worse,” Li told Yanzhao Metropolis Daily. “I had to spend money on masks, an air purifier and a treadmill” for exercising indoors.

Others are similarly furious that the government hasn’t done more to combat air pollution. So far, the responses have often been piecemeal remedies – like banning outdoor barbecues and limiting the sale of fireworks during Chinese New Year celebrations.

But at least most cities have become much more transparent in monitoring air pollution levels, which some environmentalists see as a first step to addressing the problem (see WiC225).

No one expects air quality to get any better soon. That led to another popular joke online, this one seeing President Obama struggling to persuade anyone to replace Gary Locke as US ambassador to China. So the president resorts to inviting Iron Man, Hulk, Batman and Wolverine to visit the White House. But they all decline the offer to go to Beijing, leading Obama to ask: “Are you superheroes afraid of the pollution?” Each of the candidates hangs his head in shame before Wolverine perks up to suggest: “You should ask Optimus Prime to volunteer!”

Robots, of course, don’t need to breathe. Then again, by sending a Transformer, Obama would be adding another vehicle to Beijing’s cluttered roads, potentially making things even worse…


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