The Truth Behind the Infamous “Beijing Cough”

The Truth Behind the Infamous “Beijing Cough”
Feb 03, 2013 Translated by

Editor’s note: This article was translated and edited from It discusses the recently coined term “Beijing Cough”, which is being used by Beijing-based expats to describe respiratory symptoms experienced whilst living in Beijing. The article goes on to discuss the air pollution problems in China in general and mentions several measures that should be taken in order to control the issue.  


The “Beijing Cough” is a phrase that was recently coined by the city’s expat community in light of the heavy air pollution that’s shrouded the Chinese capital over the past several days. It has become a hot topic among foreigners and locals alike, who have expressed equal concern over the recent levels of air pollution. “I have two foreign friends who, after arriving in Beijing, can’t seem to stop coughing. It seems incurable,” said Mrs. Huang, a Beijing resident. A China-Europe International Business School professor named Xu Xiaonian recently wrote on Weibo that he asked a doctor whether “all Beijingers had chronic cases of pharyngitis (a throat infection often seen as the main cause for sore throats)” with the doctor replying “pretty much. It’s all caused by the air pollution.” 

The “Beijing cough” it seems, is a true phenomenon, with foreigners and even southern Chinese unaccustomed to the harsh northern conditions both experiencing the ailment.  Peking University environmental health Professor Pan Xiaochuan noted that the “Beijing cough” is not exactly a unique condition, as residents of other heavily polluted cities across China also experiencing similar symptoms.

An “insult” to Beijing

“Recently, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about this ‘Beijing cough’,” said Renmin University physician He Quanying. “I can safely say that there is simply no medical term such as this.” The professor added that the cough can be caused by all manner of reasons, including smoking and unhealthy diets, though he admitted that air pollution was partly to blame. He Quanying also stated that “As there’s no real medical evidence to support it, people shouldn’t use this term ‘Beijing cough’. This phrase is an insult to the city of Beijing!”

Professor Pan Xiaochuan added that the “Beijing cough” syndrome affects people differently, and symptoms such as coughing and sneezing are similar to those experienced by people when they are adapting to new surroundings. “There’s no need to worry too much,” confirmed professor Pan.

There’s no denying that high levels of air pollution are contributing to the “Beijing cough” however, with Renmin University environmental professor Song Guojun stating, “high concentration of PM 2.5 can cause long-term damage to the respiratory system and other internal organs.” Worryingly, he also added, “long-term inhalation increases the risk of fatal disease later in life.”

Air pollution a major economical drain

According to the World Health Organization, in 2000, approximately 80,000 people died due to causes related to air pollution, while 600 million people were suffering shorter life expectancies. Roughly 66% of these people were living in developing countries in Asia. On the economic front, it’s been estimated that China suffered economic losses of approximately 233.4 billion RMB in 2004 due to high levels of air pollution in 111 of its major cities. And in 2007, air pollution caused an economic loss equivalent to 3.8% of the country’s total GDP.

Controlling coal usage seen as vital

With pollution levels across the country in such a severe state, many agree that current measures being taken to quell the issue are not enough. On December 5 2012, the China Ministry of Environmental Protection released a statement saying in light of plans to increase urban space in 47 cities by 14% before 2015, PM 2.5 levels should also be reduced by 5%. Experts say however that due to the widespread practice of burning of coal coupled with the rapid increase in vehicle purchasing means, even if strict new standards for lowering PM2.5 emissions were implemented, the current level of PM2.5 would only be reduced by 5% at best. “With current urban development plans, most cities across China will need at least 20 years before they can reach the air quality standard set by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. This means that the next generation of Chinese people will all be exposed to high levels of air pollution,” said environmental expert Zhou Rong, reflecting on the human cost of the issue. 

Pan Xiaochuan added that the public need to work together and improve their awareness and consciousness regarding environmental protection, and that the government should take the initiative to research and monitor PM 2.5 levels across the country. One of the key measures in reducing air pollution is controlling coal consumption. Burning coal releases many harmful gases into the atmosphere and is the key contributor to serious air pollution. Development zones or areas that require coal consumption should consider introducing limits on coal usage in order to reduce PM 2.5 levels. Experts also suggest that China increase its use of thermal energy and other “green” power methods, though recent progress in this department has been slow. In addition, research has shown that in the Beijing area specifically, over 50% of pollutant emissions come from motor vehicles, and environmental expert Song Guojun stresses the need for further restriction on the number of cars in the city and the continued investment in greener public transport.   


Source: Ifeng News

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Keywords: Beijing air pollution China coal pollution China environmental problems Beijing cough


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From the first few days I arrived in China, I started to cough and feel sort of metal taste like in my breath and lungs. As I love to walk long distances, I started to inquire about my neighborhood and by the end of my run, I sensed this feeling of heaviness in my lungs. I realized from the very first days that there is something wrong about the air but I was trying to deny it. These last days I had the feeling to live in an underworld. I am surrounded by high and beautifully mountain ranges. But during 2 weeks I could only see fog. Lately I learned to avoid going on my usual walking so my breathing has been better staying at home. Nevertheless I experienced several times this sour throat and cough. From my window, at night I was amazed at how it looked all around: a Gothic place like, this much everything was covered with the polluted air. Sinister vision before going to bed. I have traveled a lot around the world, but I have never found a Country to be so miscarrying with its environment, hence with its people who are living in China, hence with their life. The lack of respect for each ones life leads to all the display of evil and greediness a Government can imagine. That is immoral. That leads to the massive spread of illness. This it doesn't sound like ignorance at all. Name it the way you want it but don;t say that the Government is not aware of all the numbers of dead or dying or sick people due to the dirty and intoxicating air they are breathing every day. BTW: The statistics in the article are outdated. You can't bring in such old numbers, when we are already in 2013.

Feb 03, 2013 19:39 Report Abuse



Beijing almost makes one cough to look at it. Name any city without the yellow spuge and the car is the culprit. It's the price of the head long rush to capitalism. Why should the government care? Add this to the smoking rate in China, it's all a bit scary.

Feb 03, 2013 15:33 Report Abuse



What a quack this doctor is. This just shows one of the biggest problems with China, a doctor can't even give a proper medical opinion. Bollocks.

Feb 03, 2013 02:54 Report Abuse