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Escaping the smog

By Liu Zhihua | China Daily | Updated: 2013-11-03 08:18

Escaping the smog

Beijing’s Xizhimen on a clear evening is an absolute contrast to its appearance on smoggy days. Mai Tian / For China Daily

More white-collar Chinese workers are clearing out of Beijing jobs to seek careers in places with cleaner air. Liu Zhihua reports.

Beijinger Bai Jing was shocked when her doctor warned her to stop smoking during a regular checkup - because the 27-year-old has never smoked.

The doctor found nodules in the X-rays of her lungs that are common to smokers - and to those who breathe Beijing's air.

The city's lung cancer rate has increased 56 percent during the past decade, although the smoking rate has remained about the same, the Beijing Health Bureau reports.

A culprit seems to be air pollution.

Air pollution has long been known to pose health risks.

But the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer recently classified air pollution as a leading environmental cause of cancer, placing it in the same category as tobacco, and UV and plutonium radiation.

But Bai plans to stay in Beijing.

"It's my hometown and where my family lives," she says. "I don't want to live anywhere else."

But many Chinese are packing up for places with bluer skies - a phenomenon with major human resources implications.

Chengde, Hebei province, native Mondo Wang, who's ethnically Han and Spanish, recently decided to leave his Beijing job in a few weeks to move to Spain, even though the 23-year-old hasn't yet landed a job there.

"Beijing's air pollution is too heavy," Wang says. "It's unbearable."

Wang came to Beijing from Chengde to work as a fashion designer.

"Beijing has been good for my career but bad for my health," he says. "My career is important. But my health matters more."

He attributes his throat's dryness and hoarseness to the city's pollution. He points out his hometown's climate is comparable - minus the severe smog - yet he wasn't sick there.

"I lost my voice twice in the past year," Wang says. "I never did back home. If water was the problem, I could use a filter. But I can't filter the air. It's everywhere. I have no choice but to escape."

While no official figures document how many workers are leaving the capital to escape the skies, human resources companies agree that it's a growing challenge to their business.

Financial industry headhunter Eric Deng, who refuses to provide his Chinese given name, points out the city's allure is waning among his domestic candidate base, who are usually between 30 and 35 years old.

Deng says more candidates have been refusing Beijing posts since last summer. They name air quality and traffic as their main respective motivations.

"The jobs I offer are in top companies," he explains.

"They're well-paid and great platforms. They're dream jobs in finance. But candidates still refuse them."

Others already in Beijing have been asking to transfer to such places as Guangdong province's Shenzhen city and Hong Kong, citing air pollution as a reason behind their requests.

"That would have seemed unthinkable before," Deng says.

"People used to want to work in Beijing."

A Zhejiang province native, who asks to be identified as Zhe Zhe, plans to quit her job and go to Shanghai.

The 24-year-old earns decent pay at a major media company. She came to the capital before graduating from Xiamen University in Fujian province in 2011.

But with day after day of gray skies, she has had enough.

"The places where I grew up and went to university were beautiful and clean cities," she says. "I never dreamt Beijing would have such horrible air. My throat feels like it's bleeding when it's smoggy. When the smog clears, my throat is fine. The physiological response is more precisely predictable than the weather forecast."

Her Fujian-native friend, 24-year-old Lin Shutong, has determined she won't work in Beijing after a few months interning in the city.

"Beijing provides young people good job opportunities," the graduate student says.

"But it's not like I can't find a good job elsewhere."

Few of her classmates want to stay, either. They once viewed living in Beijing as enviable, Lin says.

"The air pollution is too much here," Lin says. "Why not pick a place with a better environment?"

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