A Free Press? Some Foreign News Agencies are Self-Censoring their Chinese Websites So They Won’t Be Blocked in China

A cartoon released by the Chinese government this year tells the tale of a Chinese girl who is tricked into leaking secrets to her boyfriend, who turns out to be a foreign spy.In recent years some foreign journalists in China (primarily those from certain democratic countries) have been accused of being spies.

In February of this year President Xi Jinping conducted a highly publicized tour of state news agencies, where he reportedly demanded that journalists pledge their absolute loyalty to China’s Communist Party. While Xi’s prolific focus on domestic media censorship is certainly no secret —  since his ascension to General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 the government has increased its use of surveillance, financial incentives, intimidation and even imprisonment to keep journalists under its yoke —  it’s startling to note that some foreign media outlets are voluntarily censoring their own material to avoid the wrath of the government and break into the country’s enormous media market.

That’s one of the revelations in a September report from PEN America, an international organization devoted to championing freedom of expression for writers of both fiction and non-fiction. According to the report, which relies on information from dozens of foreign reporters and Chinese news assistants, western media outlets such as The Economist, Reuters and Fortune have refrained from posting articles about potentially sensitive topics (human rights, the economy and more recently the Panama papers) on their Chinese language websites that otherwise appeared on their international sites.

When the Panama papers were leaked in April of this year –linking Xi and other top leaders to massive, tax-free offshore financial holdings —  the Chinese-language websites for multiple media outlets reported the leak but did not mention the Chinese leaders implicated.

“The Economist’s English-language website, blocked since April after a cover story on XI, published an article titled ‘the Panama papers embarrass China’s leaders’ on April 7. The article did not appear on the Economists bilingual mobile app. Each month, 30 articles from the Economist’s website are translated into Chinese and published in both English and Chinese on the app, which is accessible in China… In the month of April, during which time much of the Panama papers were leaked, of the 30 articles the app published only one article was about the leaks but made no mention of China,” the report notes.

Xi Jinping reportedly demanded “absolute loyalty” from journalists at state-run news agencies during a highly-publicize tour of various newsrooms.

The foreign press, and even social media organizations such as Facebook, are eager to make themselves available to China’s 700 million internet users – a potentially huge audience for news consumption. There’s a lot of money to be made in China. But the only way those companies can make that happen is if they play ball with the government.

“It is ridiculous, almost, to imagine that you can push the envelope and do great coverage in Chinese and not be impacted on your bottom line,” David Bandurski, a research with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, told PEN America.

Other interesting findings from the report:

  • Seventy-two percent of the journalists interviewed by PEN said they have experienced either physical abuse or intimidation from a government official.
  • News stories perceived to be critical of the Chinese economy or individuals in leadership positions are most likely to trigger reprisals from the government. Bloomberg News and The New York Times were both blocked in China after those outlets independently published articles delving into the finances of Xi Jinping’s family (Bloomberg) and Wen Jiabao (The New York Times), China’s former Prime Minister. Reporters from both organizations were unable to obtain work visas in China following the publications of those stories.
  • The Chinese government has not granted any long term residency permits to journalists from online media organizations. Therefore, online organizations have not been able to establish permanent bureaus inside of mainland China.
  • Foreign reporters, specifically those from democratic countries, are often perceived to be inherently biased against China. Some foreign reporters have been accused of being spies for their government.
  • Chinese sources and news assistants who even speak to foreign reporters have been the targets of police surveillance, intimidation and arrest. Chinese journalists have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements with their employers to ensure they will not share information with foreign reporters.

An Ancient Jewish Community in China Believes It’s Being Monitored By the Government

China is probably one of the last places where one would expect to find the descendants of Jews who lived almost a millennium ago. But somehow a small community of Chinese Jews, who are thought to be descended from Middle Eastern merchants, has endured in Henan province until the present day.

Whether it will endure any longer is the subject of an article published by The New York Times on September 24, which reports that the “Kaifeng Jews” have suddenly and unexpectedly been targeted by the Chinese government.

Two Jewish residents of Kaifeng captured by National Geographic in 1907

Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, was located on the heavily-traveled Silk Road. As a result, the city was a hub for foreign traders. China’s east coast is no stranger to Judaism and is home to four historically Jewish communities, according to the Sino-Judaic Institute. Shanghai, as I previously wrote, was famously one of only two ports in the world that accepted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe during World War II.

While Judaism isn’t one of China’s five state-sanctioned religions, the authorities have turned a blind eye to the minuscule portion of the population that still adheres to the faith. Most of the Kaifeng Jews still living actually have little practical knowledge of Judaism. The city’s last rabbi reportedly died in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In recent decades, the community’s connection to Judaism is primarily cultural: individuals self-identified as Kaifeng Jews usually do not eat pork and often only know of their Jewish ancestry from old family stories about relatives who went to a synagogue or because of a family name marking them as one of the community’s eight historically Jewish clans (the names were conferred by a Ming Dynasty emperor).

A model of the old Kaifeng synagogue at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv

In recent decades Kaifeng has had a sort of Jewish revival.  Jewish organizations — offering everything from religious instruction to the opportunity to migrate to Israel— established themselves in the community to connect its residents to their cultural and religious history. Some began studying the Torah and the traditions of Judaism in earnest. The government didn’t seem to care, according to news reports, until the Kaifeng Jews began attracting foreign media attention.

Some Kaifeng residents say the government took action after a Jewish woman from their community won asylum to the United States by claiming she was the victim of “religious persecution.”

A group of Chinese women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  The women told NBC news that they hope to become Israeli citizens (NBC News).

And now it appears that the government – perhaps in retaliation to the bad PR?  — wants to obliterate any of the small traces of Jewish history that still exist in Kaifeng.  A stone inscription marking the site of Kaifeng’s old synagogue was recently removed by city officials, who also prohibited groups from gathering to celebrate Jewish holidays. Some of the city’s Jewish descendants have told reporters they fear their actions and conversations are being monitored by the government.

What’s interesting is that many of the Kaifeng Jews said that they don’t necessarily see this as an act of antisemitism; rather, it may be a message to emphasize that the Communist Party’s political domination cannot be challenged by foreign organizations, especially those affiliated with unsanctioned religious groups.

But it seems that Kaifeng’s Jewish residents aren’t easily intimidated.

“Judaism,” as one man told the New York Times, “is all about endurance.”

China is Forbidding Popular News Agencies From Pursuing Original Reporting

Xi Jinping reportedly demanded “absolute loyalty” from journalists at state-run news agencies during a highly-publicized propaganda tour of various newsrooms.

China isn’t, ahem, exactly known for championing the freedom of its press. But current events are about to become even more obfuscated in a country that already ranks 176 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index.

Four of the country’s largest independent online news providers – news agencies that are not the official mouthpieces of the Communist Party – have been ordered to shut down or severely tone-down their original reporting in the run-up to a meeting of the Communist Party Congress next year. As several news outlets have reported, the Chinese government has had a penchant for seriously enhancing its internet censorship during important political meetings  or events ever since Xi Jinping took over as party leader in 2012 . I can personally attest to this; during the Lianghui earlier this year I was unable to use my VPN to access the uncensored internet for at least two weeks.

Under Xi, press freedom (whatever little there was) has dwindled and several journalists have either been intimidated, jailed or deported for questioning or defying regulations set by the Communist Party.

The most concerning part about this is that most Chinese citizens will never know this is taking place, because they are unable to access uncensored information on television or on the internet.

Actually, some of them do know. But it’s such a commonplace aspect of life in China that it’s difficult for people to get worked up about it. As one of my students told me, he “already doesn’t trust” CCTV (the country’s state-run television network) and he isn’t surprised the government is trying to withhold information from the public. “This is China,” he simply told me.  What else would you expect?

Sitting in this modern Shanghai café, full of people holding luxury-brand shopping bags and sipping cappuccinos, it can be easy to forget that this society exists under an iron-grip of information control.

It’s also concerning to see how distractions – smartphones and streaming television shows and shopping – really do stop people from asking questions. For many Chinese people, life now is better than it has ever been. Considering the turmoil of the past century, it’s not difficult to understand how having a full stomach and money in the bank trumps the desire for freedom of information.

It’s a slippery slope. And speaking of “trump” – I honestly believe that this level of information control would be pursued by the Republican presidential candidate who shall not be named with a capital “T.” The thin-skinned man, who supposedly loves everything about the United States Constitution except the First Amendment, has repeatedly expressed desire to curtail press freedom. You know, so the big-bad journalists don’t hurt his feelings.

If for some godforsaken reason (like if the entire American population decides to drop acid on Election Day) he makes it to the White House, you know he’s going to be looking to Xi for some management tips.


Why Chinese People Are Offended by the Queen’s “Rude” Comment

The Queen and Xi Jinping, looking like best friends (photo: The Telegraph)

By this point most people have heard that Queen Elizabeth II was caught on camera describing visiting Chinese officials as “rude,” a hot mic accident that has made international headlines.

The Queen was referring to an incident last October, during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United Kingdom. The visit was aimed at encouraging Chinese investment in Britain, part of the so-called “golden era” of economic relations between the two countries.

The comments in question occurred during a garden party at Buckingham Palace earlier this month, when the Queen was being introduced to a female Metropolitan Police Commander who had been in charge of security during the state visit. An official was recorded telling the Queen that the commander had been “seriously, seriously undermined by the Chinese, but she managed to hold her own and remain in command.”

In response, the Queen said she was aware that the Chinese officials had been “very rude to the ambassador” – the British Ambassador to China, Barbara Woodward. According to reports, the Chinese officials had, at one point, walked out of a meeting and threatened to cancel the the state visit.

Those are the extent of the recorded comments. Such breaking international news, right?

But while most of my expat friends have gleefully posting the story to social media – always with  a joke about spitting, pushing on the subway and other rude (at least by Western standards) behaviors most people witness every day in China – some of the native Chinese people I know were actually offended by the trending news story. News articles about the Queen’s comments have been censored here in China, but plenty of people have ways to get around that.

One Chinese woman that I know posted a link to the story, along with the following comment, on social media: “Foreigners are not always polite when [sic.] come to China.”

An editorial published by the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, said the British journalists who reported the comments were “disrespectful gossipers,” according to a translation provided by The New York Times. It also suggested they could learn some class by being exposed to Chinese culture.

“The disrespectful gossipers in the media there, narcissistic and baring their fangs, seemingly retain vestiges of the inelegance of barbarians,” the editorial said. “We believe, however, that with constant contact with the 5,000-year-old civilization of the East, they will make progress.”

A lot of Chinese people I’ve met actually have some kind of strange admiration for not only Britain, but the monarchy itself. I suppose the Queen is part of the fairy-tale fantasy many people have about England: A country full of elegant women and handsome gentlemen who sip afternoon tea near the gates of Buckingham Palace.

I  realize that I sound patronizing; I’m writing this because I’ve probably heard this description of England from dozens of my Chinese students. It’s nicer than the way I’ve usually heard people describe the United States (guns, hamburgers, large people).

Anyway – for people who see England as the center of polite behavior and a fairy-tale monarchy, it must have come as a blow to hear that Queen herself describe the visiting Chinese as “rude.” Perhaps it has been perceived as making the entire nation “lose face.”

Not that this is the first time China has made headlines due to what has been perceived as rude behavior overseas. Whether its urinating anywhere and everywhere in public, defacing a 3,500 year-old Egyptian temple, or making so much noise that a country decided to introduce special train cares solely for Chinese tourists, Chinese travelers usually have a pretty bad reputation.

In 2013 the Chinese government released a “Guide to Civilized Tourism and Travel” in attempt to reign in some of these behaviors. The guide warns travelers against spitting, urinating, defecating, picking noses and sleeping in public.


Access to Foreign News in China Just Became More Restricted

Living in Shanghai sometimes gives me a warped perspective about life in mainland China as a whole. Reminders of western life, the United States and capitalism are everywhere. It’s an ambitious city; people flock to Shanghai with hopes of making their fortune. “Money” is the word of the city.The English language, while not universally spoken, is still ubiquitous.

I forget about the fact that while foreign influences can been seen, felt and even celebrated across Shanghai, that’s not the case in most of the country. I was reminded of that today when I learned that, next month,  foreign media companies will be banned from publishing online content in China. Foreign correspondents can still enter the country and file reports (with strict restrictions) for their respective news organizations. But foreign companies will not be allowed to publish any content for a Chinese audience unless they first partner with a Chinese company and receive government approval.

As Quartz, which published the story on Feb. 18, reported, this is bad news for media organizations who have been hoping to branch out to China’s huge consumer market. Some foreign companies have reportedly invested millions into their China operations – including big names like The New York Times, which can’t even be accessed without a VPN.

And of course, it’s bad news for the people living in China, who are being subjected to yet another layer of censorship.

From Quartz:

“The new rules would allow only 100% Chinese companies to produce any content that goes online, and then only after approval from Chinese authorities and the acquisition of an online publishing license. Companies will then be expected to self-censor, and not publish any information at all that falls into several broad categories, including:

  • harming national unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity
  • disclosing state secrets, endangering national security, or harming national honor and interests
  • inciting ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, undermining national unity, or going against ethnic customs and habits
  • spreading rumors, disturbing social order, or undermining social stability
  • insulting or slandering others, infringing upon the legitimate rights of others
  • endangering social morality or national cultural tradition”

VPN Woes in Mainland China

I’ve had some problems updating my blog this past week due to faulty VPN connections.

When my VPN – a Virtual Private Network, for those of you who may not know – doesn’t work, it feels as though I’ve been cut off from the outside world. While I obviously have internet access here in China, it is heavily censored and monitored. China’s Great Firewall  keeps people inside of the mainland from accessing some of the world’s most popular websites, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, The New York Times, most foreign online banking websites and blogging platforms. Controversial phrases (think: Tiananmen Square 1989) are also censored, blocking websites that may include those phrases in articles or headlines.

Yes, I can still use the internet here without a VPN. But it’s such a poor example of the internet, compared to what can be accessed in countries that do not impose heavy censorship. And while the Chinese internet itself is massive, it’s mostly inaccessible for people who cannot read and comprehend Chinese characters. Continue reading “VPN Woes in Mainland China”

China News: Stalin Collected Mao Zedong’s “Excrement” To Determine Trustworthiness

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In what may be the most bizarre article I’ve read involving Mao Zedong, today the BBC reports that Joseph Stalin literally ordered his aides to collect the Chinese leader’s shit in order to analyze it and uncover covert information about him.

What. The. Hell.

This information reportedly comes from Soviet agent Igor Atamanenko, who was interviewed by the BBC. The notoriously ruthless – and paranoid – leader of the former Soviet Union allegedly created the project in order to obtain the stool samples of foreign leaders and use it to construct “psychological portraits”.

From the article:

“That’s why our specialists came up with the most extravagant ways of extracting information about a person.”

Mr. Atamanenko says it was Stalin’s henchman Lavrenti Beria who was put in charge of the secret laboratory.

When I contacted Mr. Atamanenko, he told me what the Soviet scientists had been looking for in faeces.

“For example, if they detected high levels of amino acid Tryptophan,” he explained, “they concluded that person was calm and approachable.

“But a lack of potassium in poo was seen as a sign of a nervous disposition and someone with insomnia.”

The article reports that Soviet spies collected excrement from Mao during his 1949 trip to Moscow, where he was “plied with food and drink” for 10 days. In what could hardly be a surprise, Russia’s Federal Security Service refused to comment on the story.

The article didn’t include any information about the results of Mao’s “analysis”.


What. The. Hell.


The New York Times Says Bad Management Has Led To “Chaotic Descent” of Chinese Economy

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In an editorial published on January 8th, the New York Times claimed that mismanagement of the Chinese economy has “turned what should have been a benign, natural slowdown into a chaotic descent.”

It seems like foreign and Chinese news sources alike have been publishing daily updates on the Chinese economy for weeks now. Plummeting demands in the manufacturing sector, along with a shaky stock market, has led to a drop in economic growth in the world’s second-largest economy, creating some fear that the shockwaves could impact China’s trading partners as well.

The New York Times’ editorial board wrote that a Chinese recession could have “far-reaching implications because the country has become such a big part of the world economy.”

But the reason I posted this article is because the Times suggested China’s economic slowdown should primarily be blamed on bad management. Corruption and disorganization among the country’s (many) state-owned companies and enterprises, a government-backed stock market bubble, and an inefficient banking system are just some of the reasons China’s economy has begun to falter after its monstrous rise, the Times reports.

The editorial ends with the newspaper advising China’s leaders to “modernize their policies.” I really only find this interesting because every expat I know who has worked for a Chinese company has had similar complaints about their employers’ inefficient — that is almost always the word used — and disorganized styles of management. This includes myself. When I lived in Jinan, I worked for a locally owned language training center that changed its curriculum monthly and was late with salary payments on more than one occasion. It felt like no one knew what the rules were. No one knew what was going on.

But my experience is exactly that – only mine. It obviously cannot stand as an overarching example of management capabilities across the country.

There are plenty of web articles and forums comparing Chinese and western management styles. A 2011 article from The Diplomat, bluntly titled “Why Chinese Make Bad Managers,” claims that Chinese managers equate management with warfare, which is why they are “so singularly bad at it.” (The article was written by a Chinese person.)

“To ease their own violent paranoia, Chinese managers instill and augment violent paranoia in their staff. To maintain absolute control, they will practice divide-and-conquer by constantly changing favourites, spreading innuendoes and rumours and lies, and acting arbitrarily and violently to induce terror,” the writer alleges.

I don’t have enough first-hand experience to be able to comment fairly on that accusation. But if it is true, that kind of management strategy doesn’t exactly seem like it would create a happy and efficient workplace. It actually sounds extremely stressful, and stress in the workplace can severely dampen employee engagement and productivity.

I’m sure plenty of people can, from experience, attest to that.

With Manufacturing Down, China Needs It’s Residents to Buy, Buy, Buy

China’s abundance of cheap labor has often been cited as one of the reasons it has become the manufacturing mecca of the world. The abundance of low-cost goods flooding out of the country, and out into the international market, created an economic boom that has completely transformed the east coast of the massive country.

But with demand for Chinese products falling, the country is desperately trying to increase consumer spending within. What better way to do that than by creating reasons for people to go shopping?

China’s state-run newspaper, The China Daily, reports the country’s non-manufacturing activity (so, it’s economy not related to the manufacturing industry) was quite healthy at the end of 2015  – perhaps this is supposed to be a comfort to counter all of the articles in the international press that have recently focused on China’s “slowing economy.”

“Industries related to household consumption, such as retail, postal and express delivery services, storage and distribution services, as well as Internet software, all expanded due to a holiday and year-end promotion sales boom,” China Daily reported, referring to information provided by the National Bureau of Statistics.

The “holiday and year-end promotions sales boom” the article mentioned must be referring to two year-end “holidays” dedicated solely to shopping. November 11 — commonly noted as 11/11 — is known as Single’s Day in China, and has been transformed into the country’s biggest shopping day of the year by the e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Yes. Alibaba basically created this “holiday” to encourage people to buy things. Because if you’re so unlucky as to be single, you might as well buy yourself a nice present to make up for it.

“Singles’ Day was originally a mock celebration in China for people not in relationships. But Alibaba in 2009 co-opted the event into a consumption-fest for all, featuring steep discounts and other promotions aimed at attracting droves of customers online. Alibaba’s sales data have been closely watched as a gauge of Chinese consumption as economic growth slows,” Reuters reported in November.

As I mentioned in November, Chinese shoppers spent more than $14 billion on Single’s Day. That’s far more than American shoppers spend on Black Friday, a sales promotion that many retailers depend on in order to rake in year-end sales profits.

Single’s Day has gone so well that China invented another retail holiday for barely a month later – “12/12”. December 12 — 12/12 — is supposed to be equivalent to Cyber Monday (although I thought 11/11 was that as well…)

Although 12/12 isn’t quite on the same level as 11/11, I’m assuming the promotion must have accounted for even more of the year-end sales mentioned by China Daily.

It’s funny – the USA and China have both created retail holidays to bolster their service economies. For so long, the USA has used Christmas as an excuse for excess consumption. But Christmas shopping isn’t really a thing in China, which does not have strong ties to the holiday. I wonder what kind of retail holiday the Chinese government (or likely, a company) will create next?




Beijing Airpocalypse: Is a day in the toxic air really equal to smoking 40 cigarettes?

ShenyangBeijing isn’t the only Chinese city exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution.

Air pollution in China, particularly in the northeastern cities outside of Beijing, is undeniably bad. I know it, you know it, and just about every person living in the country knows it.

But just how severe is the impact of spending one day, or even one hour, in the heart of China’s Shanghai-Beijing corridor? About 4,000 people die of air-pollution related illnesses every day, according to a study conducted by the independent research group Berkeley Earth, accounting for 17 percent of all deaths in China each year.

I used to live in Jinan, a city that has often been cited as having some of the highest air pollution levels in the country. I suffered from sinus infections, a cough and extreme fatigue during the cold season. Other foreigners, who like me had never experienced that level of pollution, complain about it as well.

10391405_10100341788834361_5152866158292628822_nA photo I snapped of Jinan in January 2015.I could  literally taste the pollution.

The air in Shanghai is a bit better, but it certainly isn’t good.
Berkeley Earth concluded that breathing the air in Shenyang on a heavily polluted day is the equivalent of smoking 60 cigarettes per day. On a similar note, an analysis of the report by The Economist found that a day in Beijing is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

PM 2.5, a fine particulate matter that can be inhaled by humans and lodge itself into the respiratory tract, is the culprit here. PM 2.5 is released by exhaust fumes and other burning fuels – including wood, heating oil and coal. The U.S. embassy in Shenyang has recorded PM 2.5 levels as high as 1000-1400 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Berkeley Earth reports, recommends exposure be limited to a maximum of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

The EPA reports that particulate matter may include dust, dirt, smoke, soot, and liquid droplets. Moreover, these particles come in various sizes. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers – hence, the name – are classified as “fine” particles. These smaller particles, which are so fine that they can easily lodge themselves deeply into the lungs, are believed to pose a greater health risk than, say, a PM 10-sized particle.

The potential health consequences? Lung disease, blood clots, heart attack and the inflammation of lung tissue, which can impair heart function as well.


A photo  taken on November 8, 2015 shows a residential complex in Shenyang. Berkeley Earth included the photo in its recent report. (CHINA OUT AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images) 

According to the Berkeley study authors, inhaling 1400 micrograms of PM 2.5 – like the record-high rating in Shenyang – would be equal to smoking 60 cigarettes.

Some say the cigarette claim has been hugely inflated. An August editorial from the news website The Beijinger argues that “nowhere in China is the air pollution anywhere near the equivalent of smoking even one cigarette a day” and cited an analysis that found it’s actually closer to 1/6 of one cigarette per day. The analysis, written up in a 2011 blog post by Dr. Richard Saint Cyr,” reported that on an “average” day in Beijing, an adult “inhales a total of 1.8mg of PM2.5 particles from air pollution, which is 1/6 of the average 12mg of PM2.5 particles inhaled from an average cigarette.”

However, the page now has an addendum at top – added in October –that directs readers to a follow up article since the original post is “far more simplistic than the actual mortality data shows.” The updated article does not attempt to equate air pollution exposure to a certain number of smoked cigarettes. But it does compare the mortality risks of both cigarette smoking and PM 2.5 air pollution exposure.

Cigarette smoking, according to the report is associated with a far higher mortality risk – it’s associated with an 8 year loss in life expectancy for individuals who smoke 20-40 cigarettes per day (cause that’s inhaling a hell of a lot of PM over a lifetime.) Long-term exposure to PM in highly-polluted cities may, by comparison, lead to a three-year loss in life expectancy.

“Air pollution is associated with a much higher excess risk and loss of life expectancy compared to cigarette smoking than would be expected based on the comparative dose of fine PM,” the report concluded, noting that inhaling PM from air pollution may be unavoidable, while heavy smokers actively choose to light up.

At the end of the day, an average day in Northern China probably won’t result in as much PM inhalation as smoking a pack (or two) of cigarettes. But that doesn’t matter. The air quality is still horrible at an almost unprecedented level, with no sign of it letting up any time soon. It really might be an airpocalypse.