About a hundred years ago, the Chinese writer Lu Xun described the state of China at the time: a large iron box in which the people were slowly suffocating. They were insensible, sleeping, unaware that they were slowly dying. He roused them enough to start a cultural movement opposing the social ills of the day: warlordism, feudalism, foreign exploitation and a decayed value system. Out of his writings, a furor tore through the intellectuals and students that spread ideas for change, some imported from the West, others from the Soviet Union. Eventually, two political parties emerged, they fought a Civil War, and the Communists took over the mainland.
Today, the Chinese are suffocating again. But this time, literally. Drowning in a sea of thick, smog-like pollution, as thick as humus, that clogs the throat, lodges in the lungs and turns to cancer in the tissues.
If one had to invent a modern image of hell on earth, it would be standing on a street corner of Beijing in depth of winter, when coal smoke and car exhaust roil the air in clouds so dense nothing is visible beyond one's fingertips. No one who has not been there and stood there can quite understand this.
It is one thing for a foreigner, who can come and go, to write this. One thing for someone to complain about the air pollution, or read reports of tainted food that much of the population must eat. But it is another thing to be a Chinese person and breathe the air and eat the food with no chance of escape.
Imagine sitting in a smoke filled room. The fire increases. The smoke grows denser. You cannot leave. You breathe and the smoke fills your lungs. You cannot leave. The smoke is as thick as tapioca pudding. You feel it pour down your throat. You feel it lodge in your lungs. You feel yourself dying. And there is nowhere you can go.
Multiply this image one billion and four hundred million times and you have the dilemma of the underside of the globe right now.
Sure, some cities in China are clean, relatively. Some are relatively unaffected fog and smog. But it's only a matter of time.
And what's worse -- for us -- is that China is an image of the future. It is our future. It doesn't take a nuclear holocaust to destroy the planet. It takes coal plants and swarms of cars covering the planet to render the fate of China our fate.
Please, don't read this column any longer. Do this. Light a fire. Hold an empty tennis ball can over it. Let it fill with smoke. Then cap it. Take it to your child. Or do it yourself. Open the top. Then hold it to your mouth. Breathe deep. As deeply as possible. Close your eyes. And imagine that will be every breath you will take for the rest of your life.