When I first visited Beijing in 1999, owning a private car was illegal. Taxis and bikes ruled the streets. Venturing back in 2004, I found that car ownership had skyrocketed, and the city streets were mired in Bangkok-style gridlock.
Cars and industrial pollution mean that Beijing and surrounds have been choking on air so bad, it’s off the scale.
It’s not like the locals haven’t been aware of this issue. Pollution is definitely on the public radar in China.
Two little girls my friend used to babysit drew the sun as a red smudge instead of the yellow ball you'd expect. 'Fair enough.' she said. 'That's what they see.'
When I travelled in China myself, people on the train would constantly start up chats. On hearing we were from Australia, they would often say 'Ah yes - you have a clean environment there, don't you?'
Recently a Chinese entrepreneur has started selling cans of fresh air, demonstrating that, when environmental communication fails or people become inured to it, there's always gimmicks.
Selling cans of air is a gimmick, and it's having the desired effect. A concrete item says something an op ed or a brochure never can. It embodies the satire it's meant to convey. It focuses attention on an issue people had started to take for granted. And it applies political pressure in a whole new way.
As a film critic might say: 'It's funny because it's real.'